Talking with Children about Evil
by Mike Blacet
G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
We don’t have to teach our children to fear the dark or monsters in the closet. They somehow “know.” My wife and I have had to remove stuffed animals from my son’s bedroom at night because he was terrified of them. That cute little stuffed monkey was a serious threat. Where did that come from? Apparently, monsters are real. They just aren’t in closets or under beds. Instead they look like shootings, natural disasters, abuse, death.
Even as I write this, more tragedy is very publicly unfolding in our nation. I wonder how long it will be before tragedy affects my children directly. My heart aches. Questions swirl in my head. “Will they blame God and lose faith?” “How long will it take for them to recover and heal?” “How bad will it be?” and more.
So how do we talk with our kids about the ever-present evil in the world? We’ve been told ahead of time by the Great Physician, “This will hurt a little.” So we prepare. But we prepare from a foundation of hope.
John 16:22 “…Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”
1. Be Proactive
We cannot give to our children what we do not possess ourselves. Have we wrestled well with our own questions about the existence of evil?
If you want to be better prepared, study what scripture says about evil. Ask God. Read a book about it. Talk with others. Take hold of God as your Anchor. Your children will hold to you as you hold to Him.
Hebrews 6:19 “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”
Inevitably, our children will see evil. Start the conversation about bad guys even before children are exposed to serious tragedy. It can start as simply as talking about bad guys in movies and books they like. We can’t prepare them for evil if we don’t talk about it being here.
2. Encourage safe, open communication
Children will have thoughts, feelings, and questions about tragedies and evil in the world. These reactions are a child’s attempts to make sense of what happened and get their needs met. They will have hard questions and thoughts. “Why doesn’t God stop the bad guys?” “Are we going to get hurt ?” “We just need to tell the bad guys to be nice.” We cannot stop them from reacting, but we can guide them.
Look for opportunities to talk about the tragedy. Ask them what they are feeling and thinking. Listen supportively. Avoid discouraging, criticizing, or dismissing a child’s expressions. Let them cry or say they are afraid. If we inadvertently cause them to shut themselves inside, they could stay stuck in distress with unmet needs.
Romans 12:15 “…mourn with those who mourn.”
3. Limit media exposure
To keep them from being overwhelmed by truths they can’t handle yet, we can limit their exposure to tragedies and scary images. Turn off the TV, news, computer, etc. Once our children have the basics of the story to satisfy their need, they don’t need to continue to see it.
Also, recognize that the media benefits from dramatizing stories. They don’t necessarily filter inappropriate or inaccurate details. Share an honest perspective with your children so that that their perception is correct.
Tell the rest of the Story, that Jesus has won, and that the end is triumph.
Matthew 6:22a “The eye is the lamp of the body…”
4. Follow your child’s lead
Children respond to tragedy in varying ways, depending upon age, personality, experience, etc. Keep it developmentally appropriate. Use short, simple words and concepts they grasp – speak their language. Take notice of their emotions, interest, questions, etc. as cues. Be prepared to repeat information and explanations several times.
Patiently follow your child’s lead regarding timing as well. Don’t avoid the topic, but don’t push when they resist or stay quiet. Children don’t process at our pace. Most kids just want to be kids –play games, build forts, do artwork. We don’t want them carrying the weight of the world. That’s God’s job. Not theirs. Not even ours.
1 Corinthians 3:2 “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.”
5. Reassure your children
Help your children regain a sense of being safe. Maintain a normal routine as possible. Let them be near you, hug them, and help them to connect with what comforts them. My daughter would most assuredly need her favorite teddy bear.
Manage your own emotions and reactions. Children take cues from parents. It’s okay for children to see you sad or anxious, but consider excusing yourself when overwhelmed with emotion.
Emphasize the safety of the home, school, and community. Talk about safety precautions being taken and review family, school, or community safety procedures and plans for crisis. Seek the refuge of family, friends, church, or community to reinforce the sense of safety and community. Remind them that most people are doing good things for others. Highlight the small likelihood of incidents occurring.
Psalm 16:1 “Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge.”
6. Encourage and practice self care
Caring for yourself after a tragedy is important, to strengthen your own ability to cope with stress, and improve your ability to care for those you love. Also, you will model for your children how to cope. Continue to rely on God, get enough sleep, journal, eat a healthy diet, be physically active, socialize, and more. Include your children as appropriate and provide for them an outlet for self-expression. Spend more close, quality time together.
Lean on the strength and provision of others outside your immediate family. Seek out church, school, and community resources. Get pastoral or professional help if you need it. It’s okay if you’re not enough. God always is.
Matthew 11:28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
The following is an example of ideas: “Self-Care Plan,” Counseling & Recovery Services of Oklahoma.
7. Respond with meaningful action
Romans 12:21 “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Do something, with your children, for those affected by the tragedy. Consider fundraising, giving supplies, drawing pictures, writing letters, sending thank-you notes to first responders, and more. Pray with your children, for the victims, and for the “bad guys.”
Talk with children about forgiveness, mercy, grace. Identify and carry out some ways to demonstrate them. If it seems appropriate, you may consider doing something for even the “enemy.” Prayerfully consider this.
Through it all, bring the gospel of Christ, in word and action, to those who are lost and in distress about the evil in the world. We know the answer to evil, the One Good that overcomes it all.
The following is a link to many ideas for doing good: “100+ Ways for Your Family to Make a Difference,” by Kristen Welch.
Other helpful links:
National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Various resources for helping children after mass violence
Resources for parents and caregivers
Mike Blacet is a therapist with Cornerstone Christian Counseling Services in Tulsa. After graduating with an engineering degree in 1999, God got a hold of him and changed his course. Mike has since been committed to helping others, in cooperation with Christ’s work in them, to find healing. Mike enjoys running, reading, the sciences, working with his hands, and spending time with family and friends. He and his wife Angela married in 2001, and enjoy time with their daughters, Madelyn and Grace, and their son, Noah. His first article for The918: “Four Words that Changed My Marriage.”
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