Our kids are struggling too: Here’s how to help them

Written by Amy Olrick
Published on September 15, 2020

How we respond to our children’s pain matters. And we can help them grow strong even through these hard days.

Not long ago, my nine-year-old son approached me with an earnest question: “Mom, do we really believe that after we die we go to heaven and this . . . ” He paused and gestured around the living room. He then continued, “And this just goes on and on, forever? With no blackness?”

Next, he looked me straight in the eye, “Because I want the blackness.”

“Oh,” I caught my breath, taken off-guard. I understood his question too well and spoke into his concern, “Oh honey, I get that. I can see how you would feel that way.” I pulled him toward me, praying for faithful words to speak of the hope that is to come. 

But nothing seemed adequate for the moment, so I just held him.

They aren’t equipped

I keep thinking about his question, as we move through these long days. 

I am struck by the weight of what so many of our children are carrying. Their routines have been disrupted, their parents are stressed and grieving, and reminders of illness and death unexpectedly surface throughout their days. 

On top of their worry, their losses are real. They’re missing friends, sports, celebrations, and milestones. As adults, we are having a hard enough time processing all of this pain. 

And our children’s developing brains just aren’t equipped to do it.

Parents, stay close and listen

My husband is a clinical child psychologist and an expert in the field of attachment science. Through a lens of faith, we have been exploring child development and attachment research together for over twenty years. 

We’ve discovered remarkable connections between what science is revealing about children’s need to thrive and the present, pursuing love of God as revealed in Scripture. Both science and faith point us to the fact that humans are formed by relationship and made for connection. 

When parents are open and available to their children, they create pathways in their children’s developing brains. The process of grieving and recovering from pain with someone develops these pathways. And they give children a way to process overwhelming experiences, which builds their resiliency against future pain and potential trauma. 

Parents don’t have to be perfect or have all the answers to do this well—they just have to be willing to stay close and listen when their children experience life’s inevitable trouble.

A promised part of life

This science echoes the Psalms and their holy picture of grief and lament. 

The Psalmist cries out to a God who does not condemn pleas like: 

Why have you forgotten me (Psalm 42:9)?
How long must I stay in this sorrow (Psalm 13)? 

He speaks to a God who is actively listening and not jumping in to distract or correct him. God stays present and holds us tight through our pain. Through his loving presence, a pathway of connection is created that eventually gives us the strength to return to the refrain: “I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 43:5).

We are first provided with present comfort, then the way forward.  Jesus says both: “In this world you will have trouble,” and “I will never leave you or forsake you” (John 16:33; Hebrews 13:5).

His words remind me that pain and suffering are not indications that we’ve done something wrong. Trouble and grief are simply part of life—even a promised part. 

But we are also promised that God will be with us in the midst of our pain.

See their suffering

When my kids are struggling, I naturally want to rush them through what they’re feeling. I want to push them to embrace a conclusion that makes me feel better about their experience. 

But we can’t point to hope before we’ve acknowledged the pain. 

When they’re dealing with hard things, my kids don’t need my seemingly logical explanations or forced attempts to make everything better. Often, it’s enough just to hold them for a while—to tell them that I see their suffering. It’s enough to stay close and sit with them and their pain. 

It helps me to remember that God is also familiar with sorrow and acquainted with grief. A path forward will become clear when it’s time.

Practice imperfect love

I wish I could say that comforting my children this way comes easily to me, but it doesn’t. 

It takes faith to persevere through pain and trust that hope will arise. My belief is multifaceted. I believe that God is an ever-present help in trouble. I also believe that my conscious decision to be imperfectly, lovingly present matters for my children’s long-term development. 

When the kids are all doing okay, we can laugh, sing, and learn. We can play games and enjoy each other’s company. We can fight, apologize, and work out our differences.  

When one of them is struggling, I can stop, practice presence, and listen, even when it’s hard. 

Both faith and science reveal the same truth: persevering faithfully now, will grow them in character and strength over time. My imperfect love can point them to hope that will not disappoint. It can point them to God who will one day shatter the darkness, wipe away every tear, and welcome us all home.

Live perfectly imperfect

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Amy Olrick

Amy Olrick is an author and human rights advocate whose work and writing has been featured in the Guardian and USA Today. Together, with her husband, Jeffrey, the Olricks run GrowingConnected.com and produce the Growing Connected podcast, where they offer scientifically grounded and faith-informed resources for parents.

Read more about Amy

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