The answer, simply, is the truth. Be honest.
If you feel hesitant, or that you may be introducing them to pain in the world by talking about what happened, consider this: They will experience pain in life. It is good practice for them to go through the emotional responses to some grief now, with you, in the safety of a caring home and community.
Children also are savvy to the emotional experiences around them. Even if they do not know or understand the particulars of what's gone on, they will sense that you are affected. Be honest with them when you are hurting while also taking care of your own needs.
Helpful tips for having personal conversations with children:
– Many people still believe it is best to shield children from painful truths. Misleading children, evading truth, relying on euphemisms, or telling falsehoods, can be more harmful than good, and can lead them to lose trust in you, their caregiver.
– Children, like adults, experience a wide spectrum of emotion following trauma, including sudden deaths. Some children will be content with brief answers of one or two sentences while others will have continuous questions.
– When it comes to the challenges of murder or suicide, reminding children how all humans make choices with their bodies. Many people's bodies or brains can get sick and some sicknesses can jumble thoughts and feelings a lot. In some of these cases, people cannot think of any other way to stop the pain they are feeling inside than to choose to die or choose to kill other people.
– Children feel a range of emotions in response to adults grieving around them. Be honest about your grief and discuss some of the ways you are taking care of yourself.
Helpful tips for giving a Children's Message during a service of worship:
– These messages should be presented by a stable authority figure. This may be a clergy person or a Children's Education Director. (This is not the time for the next parent or adult in the volunteer rotation cycle.)
– Since every family addresses tragedy uniquely, and children present may be knowledgable about what's occurred or they may not. Be respectful of guardians wishes while also modeling a welcoming caring space for community grieving.
– Consider opening with a general statement like: "A lot has happened recently. You may have noticed that adults are feeling very sad right now."
– Help them to know what to do with sad feelings: "Sometimes both grown-ups and kids feel sad or afraid. This is a place where we can acknowledge feeling that way. What does it feel like for you when you feel sad or afraid? What does it feel like in your body, in your head, or in your heart?"
– After kids have a chance to share some of what they have heard or felt, this can be followed by a related reading or paraphrase of Scripture or a prayer, in a format that the children are accustomed to.
– End by letting kids know it's ok if they wish to talk about or pray about more what's happened – or any other events that may make them or the adults around them feel sad or afraid. Give them some directions about who they can go to if they would like to do that.
– Even as some adults will want to "put it behind them," doing so is not consistent with how children process trauma. As our bodies develop, each of us revisits passed events to review them with new developmental abilities. Children then seek out assistance with this review when they are adolescents, young adults, or adults. As clergy or volunteers in a congregation, adults can prepare themselves to be available for children who may want to review recent events in weeks, months, and years to come.
Online Tools for Ministry and Worship
Films addressing Calming Congregations and Children's Ministry through the Storm
Resource Guide for Ministers addressing trauma among congregations
Guidelines for Becoming a Trauma-Informed Congregation and planning Vigils