Teaching children to serve other during difficult times

Central Church of Christ

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 Fear.  Shock.  Grief.

These are some of the emotions the people of the Upper Cumberland woke last March after violent tornadoes tore across communities in Middle Tennessee.  Close to home, parts of Cookeville and Putnam County were devastated: businesses were lost, homes were destroyed, people were injured, and lives were lost.  Within a month, a damaging system came through White County, with severe straight line winds, and an EF-3 passed through Chattanooga.

As the pictures and details of the devastation were just coming to light, it brought many emotions to the surface.  It was horrifying to think of such a tragedy happening in a place where you travel, work, and live, and it was shocking when it touched your friends, neighbors, and family.  There just aren’t words that can adequately express those gut-wrenching feelings. Many of those feelings are newly repeated this year, with each new tornado watch or thunderstorm warning that arrives on your weather radio.

For families with children, there is added difficulty that comes in the aftermaths of these tragedies of severe magnitude.  If we, as adults, find it difficult to deal with these big emotions even a year later, think how challenging it can be for children.  Children may have seen pictures and heard stories that they didn’t and still don’t understand, and it can be frightening and confusing. 

Don’t be afraid to discuss difficult events with your children that happened last year or that could happen this year.  Take the opportunity to reinforce your family’s values and to foster hope and resilience in your children by communicating before, during, and after difficult situations arise.  Consider these four “P’s” to help you teach your children about coping with natural disasters and other emergencies.

  • Process. Talk with your children, and allow them to process what they’re thinking and feeling. Provide an age-appropriate explanation of the event, and let them ask questions. This is the time to reassure them that they are loved by you and many others who will help them if something bad ever happens to them.  Remind them that even though our world is broken by sin, God loves them and cares for them.
  • Pray. Make prayer a priority with your children. Pray for them and with them, and ask God to help you both with your fears, sadness, or other difficult emotions.  Pray together for the people who have been directly impacted by the catastrophe.
  • Prepare. Every family needs an emergency plan of what to do in the event of a tornado, fire, or other emergency. Talk about your plans with your children, and practice them together.  Where will you gather in your home if the tornado sirens sound?  If there’s a fire, how will you get out of your house, and where will you meet?  Who should a child go to if they need help?  Does your child know the name and number of someone outside of the immediate family they can contact in an emergency?  Do your children know who will care for them if something happens to you?  Having a plan helps children feel more in control of an otherwise overwhelming situation. 
  • Participate. Tennessee is aptly called “The Volunteer State.” As soon as word got out about the tornados across Tennessee, offers of help came pouring in. Unfortunately, the clean-up is usually a long process, and needs last more than the first few critical days.  As you process and pray with your children, consider how your family can participate in the volunteer effort.  Perhaps you can all go together to purchase requested supplies to donate.  See if there is clean-up work in which you can be involved.  Topher has a passion for disaster relief, and our sons have been involved in storm clean-up since they were four or five.  Even at that age, they could go with us to pick up sticks and tree limbs out of someone’s yard after a storm had moved through.  Now, years later, Gabriel and Ethan have both been to the Gulf after hurricanes, and even in the past week all three of our boys were out dragging limbs and cutting trees in White and Putnam counties.  Participating and helping, even in a seemingly small way after a tragedy, combats the terrible feeling of helplessness and shows children that they are an important, useful part of the community, too.

Building strong families is not just about spending happy, quality time together.  Strong families work together to cope with tragedies, too.  By helping our children process, pray, prepare, and participate, we’re equipping them with tools to help them navigate the difficulties of life.

When faced with the reality of a broken world where terrible things can happen, I’m sometimes tempted to despair.  I’d like to leave you with the closing words of Psalm 27, which has often encouraged me to hope.  I pray that you will help your children see the goodness of the Lord, even in the midst of terrible times.

“I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord. Be strong and let your heart take courage. Yes, wait for the Lord.”  - Psalm 27:13-14        

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