Practical Ways to Help Hurting Children

by Karen Dockrey

You feel so bad for them:

- Your nephew faces a learning disability and you wonder if he'll succeed at school.

- The child you've like since she was a preschooler has just been diagnosed with cancer at age eight.

- Another divorce is breaking the heart of your daughter's best friend.

- Your own child is reeling from a former friend's announcement that he's no longer cool enough to sit with friends he's known since kindergarten.

You feel so bad. You'd do anything to take away their pain. But feeling bad won't take away their pain. And trying to erase the pain with words like, "Everything will be okay," makes a child feel invisible.

So what's the answer? Walk with the child through her pain. Then equip her to manage the tough stuff she faces. It won't be easy, but it's a whole lot easier than abandoning a child to suffer alone.

Start by recognizing that the world of childhood is far from trouble-free. Learning disabilities, cancer, divorce, death, and damaged friendships haunt the happy days we want our children to have. We'd like to wish these away. We'd like to pretend they don't happen. But the tough stuff is reality. It's part of this imperfect world we live in (Rom. 8:19-21, Rev. 21:1-4). So face it down together. As you accompany your children through the pain, you become the vehicle through whom God shows His love. Children feel less lonely when they have a hand to hold. They feel God's very real hugs and very needed attention.

Continue by equipping your children to manage their crises. There are ways around every tough circumstance. So find those ways with God's help. Invite teachers and fellow parents to show you strategies that overcome your nephew's learning disability. Ask nurses for distractions during painful cancer treatments so your friend can get back to the fun of life. Teach relationship skills so kids can get along with new siblings in their blended families. List ten positive ways to respond to the cruel friends who insist on ugly words rather than encouraging ones.

In any tough experience assure children that their feelings make sense. Anger, confusion, and feeling betrayed are fitting responses to the tough stuff of this world. Give outlets for these powerful feelings so kids can face their tough stuff rather than be eaten alive.

As you hear children tell you their stories, it's okay to say, "I understand." You can't say, "I know how you feel," unless you've been through exactly the same experience. But you can listen closely enough to hear how that child feels about his experience this time. Even when you haven't been through these things yourself, you can understand the feelings. You know what being sad, mad, worried, or confused feels like. Let your understanding of the feelings, combined with a willingness to listen to specific circumstances, provide the care your friend needs.

Finally, just enjoy children. Kids going through tough stuff are kids first. Help with the tough stuff, but don't stay there. Ask about things other than the learning disability, the cancer, the blended family, and the friendship squabble. Share the good stuff of life as well as the bad. And stick with each other through thick and thin, confident that life is worth living no matter the obstacles.

When you feel bad about a tough time a child is going through, let your sadness prompt you to loving action. No matter how personally painful it may be for you, willingly walk with your child through the pain. Refuse to abandon her to suffer or cope alone. Add your strength to his. Do the practical things that make a real difference. Whether you're a child, parent, teacher, church worker, or another adult who cares about children, there is always something you can do to help. Start with the following M.I.N.I.S.T.R.Y. actions. By putting feet on your care, you'll help all types of tough stuff.

Make certain you hear. Rather than assume you know what your friend is thinking and feeling, invite your friend to tell you.

Incarnate the Word. Rather than just quote Scripture, live it.

Notes are more great ways to contact between visits. Sometimes visits are too intense during the height of the tough stuff. So leave answering-machine messages, backdoor gifts, cookie bouquets, letters, coloring books, floss for friendship bracelets, and more.

I can care no matter how much it hurts. Too many people avoid children who are going through tough stuff.

Show others how. Ephesians four reminds us that we are equippers to prepare God's people for works of service. So mobilize a caring team in your church, made up of both kids and adults. Show them how to listen, befriend, walk together with simple words like, "This is Terry. Will you show him the ropes and let him sit by you during class?" Show them how to give the practical help kids need, such as some privacy and some company, help with homework, invitations to events, lack of labels, and more (Matt. 25:31-46).

Teach kids about it. Children are often cruel when they don't understand. Invite the parents, teachers, medical professionals, and others to tell you what they want you to know and what they'd like you to do.

Remember. Mark on your calendar the day of the learning challenge, the date of cancer diagnosis, the remarriage date, the friendship pain, the birth, death, and more. Then give care in the form of a card, a call, a personal touch: "I'm praying with you…." For continuing crises, repeat the care in two weeks, two months, one year, and annually after that.

You really love the child rather than feel sorry for him or her. Kids going through tough stuff don't want to be set apart, admired, or treated with kid gloves. They want to be loved. So cuddle, listen to, and enjoy them. And equip them to give as well as receive.

Important: Hurting kids are not heroes; they feel lonely and isolated. Refuse to isolate them more by putting them on a spiritual pedestal or admiring them from the pulpit. This urges church members to feel different from them and hesitate to approach them with normal friendship.

Excerpt from Facing Down the Tough Stuff, by Karen Dockrey, Chariot Victor Publishing.
Karen Dockrey is the author of over twenty-five books including
Growing a Family Where People Really Like Each Other.
Used by permission.