How to Talk to Your Kids About Tragedy

Every time there is a tragedy in our world which seems to be happening more and more often, people write us at HomeWord and ask for help. Carey Nieuwhof is one of North America’s greatest thinkers for leaders in the church. I loved this blog.

How to Talk to Your Kids About Tragedy

The news is heartbreaking enough to take in as a parent. Terrorist attacks. Mass killings. Planes blowing up. Beheadings. I know…please just stop right there.

Add to that the political chaos that seems to dominate the headlines, climate change, job losses and more. It’s just too much to take some days, even for us adults.

So as a parent, how do you even begin to engage these topics with your kids?

Well, for starters, you can try to shield them, and that will work for a while. But shielding a child from life won’t actually prepare a child for life. Eventually (far sooner than you’d like, probably), they’ll begin to awaken to the reality of the world around them. You can’t shield them forever. Eventually, they’ll leave home. And long before that, they’ll get a phone, an iPod or an iPad. It’s the world at their fingertips.

Then what do you do? How do you answer their questions?

Here are a few best practices I’ve seen and some guidelines that have helped me.

Avoid simplistic or unrealistic answers

I know, I know . . . of course you realize simplistic or unrealistic answers are unhelpful. But if that’s true, why do you and I give them so often?

It’s easy to say things like “everything’s going to be okay,” or “don’t worry, God won’t let that happen to us,” or “never mind, that’s not important.”

Wishful thinking isn’t helpful thinking. Kids believe what you say, at least until they learn not to.

I’ve talked to too many adults who still struggle spiritually because when they were little and they lost their mom, someone told them that “God must have needed your mom more than you did.” Talk about how to wreck a kid’s headspace. . . and heartspace.

That’s a simple answer, but it’s not a true answer.

If you don’t know what to say . . . just say you don’t know what to say.

Related: The Face of Grief

Empathize with the story and your kid

The news actually is heartbreaking. It’s actually okay to come alongside your child’s emotion and say something like,“That actually is heartbreaking. I’m very sad about that.” Or “Yes, that’s scary. Sometimes grown-ups get scared too.”

If you’re engaging a teenager, you can be appropriately honest. Telling your child you don’t like the political situation either is actually okay.

Validating an emotion is the first step toward dealing with an emotion. Even if you can’t change the emotion, which you can’t. Or shouldn’t. Terror and death should never become normal.

Talk about a hope that goes far beyond your circumstances

Being truthful and expressing empathy is no a reason to leave your kid without hope, though.

Just because you see life for what it really is doesn’t mean you can’t also see God for who He really is.

The truth is, we have a God who is bigger than cruelty, who is bigger than terror, who is more powerful than any politician, and who is writing a bigger story. And—here’s the amazing part—we know how to story turns out. We’ve read to the end: good wins and God wins.

The thrust of scripture (which is frighteningly realistic about human nature and human history) points us again and again to this truth—we have a great big God we can trust no matter what. As in no matter what.

So why do we stop trusting? Why do we get too scared, disoriented or numb to give our kids hope that’s anchored in truth?

Too often what you and I look for in the news and in our personal lives is evidence . . .
that our circumstances are going to improve.
that we’ll be safe.
that none of this will happen to us or the people we love.
that we’ll find a job, or won’t get sick, or have even a little more money.

But the God of scripture isn’t a vending machine. Prayer isn’t a button to be pushed. It’s a relationship to be pursued.

Even more than that, our hope isn’t in our circumstances. It’s in God.

And God is bigger than our circumstances and he’s better than our circumstances.

If somehow we can convey the essence of truths like this to ourselves in times like these and ultimately to our kids, we’ll have reasons to believe when everyone else has stopped believing and reason to hope when everyone else has stopped hoping.

And when you watch the news (and shudder), you’ll be able to point to a hope that no human can ever destroy or threaten.

That’s something worth talking about. And that’s something worth sharing with the next generation.

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Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a bestselling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, and former attorney. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts. His podcast, blog and online content are accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times each month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change and personal growth. Carey and his wife, Toni, live north of Toronto.

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