Helping Children Process Emotions During Stressful or Traumatic Events

I originally wrote this post for friends in Ukraine, but realize that many of the tips can help your children, too. They may not be experiencing a war outside your door, but they too have experiences which are distressing or traumatic. using these tips can help minimize the permanent negative impact and even help them begin healing in the midst of what it happening.

Here are some things you can do to help your children process their thoughts and emotions about the traumatic events around them.

1. As worried as you might be, do not force your children to talk. Encourage them and give them opportunities, because talking is part of processing, but some children need to think about things awhile before they are ready to talk.

2. Be patient. Your child might talk a lot one day, the next day talk about random things that have nothing to do with the war and not talk much at all the next. All of that is normal.

3. Avoid asking questions that can be answered with one word like, “How are you?” The answer is almost always “Fine”. Try instead to ask questions like “what emotions are you feeling right now” that are more likely to give you more information in their answers.

4. Consider teaching them how to use a scale for each emotion with a 1 meaning I don’t feel this emotion much at all to a 10 this emotion feels almost or totally out of control. This helps both you and them monitor the intensity and change in emotions.

5. Many of you have little ones or children with special needs. Some may have trouble naming emotions. Try describing what their body might feel like with a specific emotion and if they say that’s how they are feeling, name the emotion. For example “I feel like crying” is sad. My fists are all balled up and I feel like I want to punch something” is angry, etc.

6 For non verbal children with special needs, draw a happy face, sad face, etc and see if you can get them to point to the one they are feeling.

7. When explaining what is happening (note that this was written for Ukrainians, but the emotions and temptations can apply to multiple circumstances) use the simplest possible explanation for now. Try not to overstate or make promises you can’t keep. “Some people are doing things that are hurting other people and that makes us and God very sad.” Is more constructive than extreme anger, hatred, cursing, etc. Believe me, I understand your anger and frustration and I am in no place to judge how you are dealing with everything. I do know, however, that you do not want your sweet children to grow up to be bitter, angry adults with hard cruel hearts like those that are causing trouble now. Moderating your anger when talking with and around your children can keep their hearts soft and loving in spite of what they are experiencing. And those are the hearts that God can use the most.

8. If you have access to crayons, pens, paper…it doesn’t have to be fancy, but art is one of the very best ways for them to express their emotions right now. (We will go into other strategies when things calm down) Let them draw anything they want. Don’t panic if their drawings seem dark or even strange right now. Limited art supplies can sometimes explain choices that were made in the design rather than some emotional issue.

9. If you have to flee (for Ukraine, but could apply in natural disasters here), but want to take a few toys, choose a stuffed animal first and then toys like figures they can use to act out scenarios. Don’t worry for now about the content of the play, just let them get those emotions out talking to their teddy bear or playing war games with the toys. You can get help sorting through all that from a professional later if needed.

10. Realize your child might experience flight, fight or freeze reactions because of the trauma. This may or may not be accompanied by behavioral issues from lack of sleep, low blood sugar, change in routine and a hundred other things. It’s okay to correct them, but go lighter than normal on the consequences for rebellious behavior. We all need a little extra grace when under huge amounts of stress. It does not excuse negative behaviors which is why correction is necessary, but their lives right now feel like one huge consequence.

11. Your kids may need new strategies for all of these new experiences. Clearly define any expectations that will be put on them and try to help them adjust as much as possible.

12. Do not count to get them to behave or give them lots of repeated warnings before you give correction. You may be in a situation where their very lives may depend on first time compliance to your commands in certain situations. Older ones can understand the realities. Don’t scare little ones. Just tell them it helps you keep them safe. Promise you will explain why you asked them to do something after they have obeyed you.

13 When your children are frightened and in flight, fight or freeze mode, they will have a hard time making good decisions, having discussions about behaviors, verbally expressing their emotions, etc. Their brain has slipped into the lower brain functions we discussed – the ones we would use if we saw a bear right in front of us. When they calm down a bit and feel safer, their brain can return to doing some of those higher mental skills.

14. Be aware of triggers. Sounds that are similar to air raid sirens and bombs exploding may trigger them for quite some time even when it isn’t really those things. Be aware that those triggers will send them back into fight, flight and feeeze mode.

15. Don’t worry too much if they regress to earlier childhood behaviors like thumb sucking, bed wetting, etc. Those will usually calm down once things calm down.

16. Give them as much sleep as they can possibly get given your circumstances. Let them sleep off and on all day and night if they need to catch up.

17. Watch for extreme fluctuations in personality lasting more than a few days. None of you is your “normal” self under these circumstances and that is normal. I would only be concerned with extreme changes in personality lasting more than a few days. If you don’t have access to a professional over there, let me know and we will figure out a way to get you some help.

18. Don’t be afraid to teach them about the emotions God and Jesus had. Older children can benefit from reading Psalms and as mentioned in the first post, encourage them to pray their emotions to God especially if they don’t want to talk to you yet. Some children understand the stress you are experiencing and will push down their own emotions to avoid causing you more stress.

19. Don’t forbid them to cry or criticize the emotions they are feeling. It is what it is right now. The trick is teaching them not to make bad choices when they are feeling strong emotions.

If you would like a copy of this in Ukrainian to share with friends there, please message me and I will get you a copy.

Creating a Calming Place For Your Children

I originally wrote this post to help my friends in Ukraine who have children or are ministering to children. As I reviewed the list of suggestions, however, I realized that all children could benefit from having a place in their home that served to calm them. These tips will help any parents you know in Ukraine, but they can also help you soothe your children when they have bad days, experience something traumatic or are fearful or stressed.

1. Regardless of the environment in which you find yourself, look around you and think calming and soothing. What do you have access to that might help calm and soothe your child? (This includes your home or your child’s bedroom.)

2. What are the colors in your environment? Try to position children where they can see blue, green or purple…whether it is a wall, someone’s clothing, etc. Try to simplify or minimize what they can see…for example position them looking where there is the least chaos visually (put not just staring at a blank wall, although that may be preferable to other options). When choosing paint colors, think about using these shades, although sometimes a child’s favorite color will work just as well.

3. Is there something soft or fuzzy they can hold or stroke? Stuffed animals, some pets, fuzzy blankets or pillows, etc.

4. If they do not have access to their favorite stuffed animal, encourage them to be creative and make something else a pretend stuffed animal.. a glove, sock, hat…whatever you have on you. This was written for people on the run, but if you are out running errands and your child becomes stressed, it can work just as well.

5. When it is safe, let them see things in nature….the sky, trees, whatever they can safely see. Anything from God’s creation will help calm them. It can also help to have photos from nature as artwork in their rooms.

6. Sing softly to them if you do not have access to play them music. Try lullabies or soothing worship music. If you can play music, classical music often works well.

7. Expose them to sunlight rather than artificial light as much as you can. Be safe though. Artificial light is better than sunlight in a dangerous place.

8. Cuddle them.

9. Read soothing Psalms from the book of Psalms to them.

10. Encourage them to pray their emotions to God as well as their prayers for other things.

11. Don’t be afraid to show your own emotions in front of them, but try not to have a major, out of control melt down in front of them if possible. They need to express their emotions, so seeing you teary or crying softly is good for them. They also need to feel you can protect them (even though I know it may not feel that way to you at the moment), so they need to see you together enough that they aren’t fearful they will have to care for themselves.

12. When you do have choices for the foods they eat, pick healthier ones. You all are generally very healthy eaters, but fruits, vegetables and whole grains are more important than meat for them.

13. If they can move around safely, encourage them to exercise – even if it’s just jumping or running in place. It will work some of the stress out of their bodies.

14. Pray God’s blessings over your children out loud.

15. Weighted blankets can help if you have them, but placing something heavy on their laps like a book, a coat etc. can help soothe them. Don’t put on so much weight that they are uncomfortable in any way.

16. This may be impossible, but try to lessen the frightening noises. Headphones, ear plugs even ear muffs if it’s not too hot. Or sing softly in their ears to cover some of the “bad” noises.

Create a “safe”, soothing environment in your home. It can reduce stress and anxiety in any child. If you would like a more targeted version of this post written in Ukrainian to share with friends there, please message me and I will send it to you.

7 Traits Kids Need to Become “Good Samaritans”

As a Christian parent, you’ve probably heard the story of the Good Samaritan. He was actually in a parable told by Jesus. A man was walking along a road when he was beaten, robbed and left for dead. A priest and a Levite walked right by the injured man. Although the most likely candidates to help someone, they were filled with excuses and kept going. Then a Samaritan, who culturally should have hated the injured man, stopped and provided a great deal of assistance.

The point of the parable, you may wonder? Jesus wanted it to be clear that hearts and actions are more important than words. One would think Christians and even those exposed to the story would be automatic helpers in a crisis, but a study found that only 7% of people even stopped to check on a biker who was “injured”.

How do you raise your kids to be the Good Samaritan and not the religious people who didn’t stop to help? How can you help your kids be in that 7% of people who helped?

There are six key traits of children who live their lives, making serving others a priority.

  • Loving Empathy. We tend to think these are two separate character traits, but you must have empathy to truly love someone. The priest and the Levite couldn’t put themselves in the place of the injured man. They couldn’t imagine themselves being in a similar situation. Their love for the man wasn’t evident, because they felt no connection to him.
  • Sense of Purpose. One could argue the priest and Levite thought they knew their purpose in serving God, but they missed the point of the Law. Yes, God wanted them to take care of the Temple and teach the Law, but God’s main purpose was for them to love Him with all their heart, soul and mind and love their neighbor as themselves. Had they known and embraced their full purpose in serving God, they would have realized helping the injured man was more important than where they were going. Your kids need to fully understand and embrace from a young age that their purpose in God’s Kingdom includes serving others and sharing their faith.
  • Godly Priorities. Life is about choices. Your kids need to have a great understanding of God’s priorities for their life and match their priorities to His. The priest and Levite misunderstood God’s priorities and replaced the important with the urgent. They focused on chores rather than service and ministry.
  • Time Management Skills. We don’t know much about the priest and the Levite. One has to wonder, though. If they had stopped and helped the injured man, would they really have missed doing what they were going to do? Maybe if they had gotten up a few minutes earlier or been better organized, they could have easily done both things. In the study mentioned earlier, the majority of the 93% who didn’t help the injured biker cited lack of time as their reason. If your kids learn how to trim wasted time and manage their time in an organized fashion, they will accomplish more of the good works God has planned for them to do.
  • Generosity. The parable doesn’t address the priest and Levite’s financial concerns, if any, but it does tell us the Good Samaritan spent money on the care of the injured man. There’s no indication he expected it to be paid back or wanted anything in return for his generosity. The Samaritan recognized money was needed to care for the man and he was more than willing to share what he had to make sure those caring for the man had enough money to do so. Your kids need to learn to be generous with their time and money to truly be Good Samaritans.
  • Skills. We don’t know what skills or talents God had gifted to the Good Samaritan. Maybe he was a doctor. Maybe he knew first aid. Good Samaritans don’t always need to use a skill to help someone, but if they do it’s important to be ready. Your kids need to discover and be developing their gifts from God so when they need them to serve Him, they will be ready.
  • Courage. The parable doesn’t mention whether or not the Good Samaritan had any fear in the moment he decided to help. He would have been justified if he had been afraid though. Those robbers could still be lurking nearby and attack him. The man was a Jew and he was a Samaritan. The hatred between the two groups was huge. People would walk miles out of their way to avoid touching the very land where Samaritans lived. There could have been repercussions for touching a Jew, much less helping one. Whether he was courageous by nature or had to summon the courage to help, the Good Samaritan showed courage by stopping and helping. Your kids need to understand God may ask them to help others in ways that feel scary to them. They will need to learn to trust in God and be brave to do those good works God has planned for them.

Good Samaritans are lovingly created by parents teaching and molding their children to be who God created them to be…someone who willingly serves others. Taking the time to develop these traits in your kids will make it more likely they will be life long Good Samaritans.

Can Your Kids Practice Christianity in Public School?

Every year, it seems there is confusion about what students can and cannot do in public schools regarding their religion. Since most of you reading this are Christian, I am writing from that perspective, although these rights also extend to other religions. I’m not a lawyer, but I am summarizing the information found in a U.S. Department of Education document. While the document addresses lots of other aspects of religion in the public schools, I am only sharing the gist of rules that apply to students.

The truth is your kids are actually allowed to do much more than most people think. It’s important to realize that teachers and administrators may not have read this document and may assume rules that may or may not actually exist. (If you need to access the article for a discussion with school personnel, the title is Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.)

Here’s what the U.S. Department of Education has to say about possible religious activities in public schools.

  • Students may pray and read their Bibles and other religious materials when not engaged in school activities or instruction. In other words, during lunch, recess or other times when students are given the freedom to engage in personal activities, your kids can pray, read their Bibles or a Christian book. They can’t disrupt others, but hopefully they wouldn’t do that anyway.
  • Students may pray and study religious materials with fellow students during lunch, recess or other times when students are allowed to choose activities and interact with one another. The one thing to watch here is that there is some discrepancy on the part of the school to allow any freedom of choice during the school day. If it is allowed though, it appears they cannot differentiate between allowing secular or religious activities.
  • Students can organize prayer groups, religious clubs etc. as an extracurricular activity if students are allowed to form such groups for secular activities. This one is a little trickier, because it gives the administration the right to limit any extracurricular activity from using the facilities or advertising meetings. If they allow secular groups to do so, however, they cannot discriminate against religious groups who want the same rights. The school may choose to disclaim sponsorship of any group, but they must be careful to not make it appear as if it is only against religious groups.
  • Students may express their religious beliefs in any writing, art or other assignment where doing so makes sense and cannot be discriminated against for doing so. This one can get tricky. A teacher has latitude to say an argument is weak or the grammar is bad and take off points for that even if it is a cover for their disagreement with the religious views. It would be hard to fight those types of comments. Most teachers, however, are pretty open to allowing their students some freedom of expression and in some areas may actually agree with the students’ Christian ideals.
  • Schools can allow students to be released for religious instruction or activities. This one is at the discretion of the school, so don’t expect it to be allowed in most places.
  • Student speakers cannot be chosen based on their religious beliefs or lack thereof. This is another one that can go either way. In general, if the school allows the student freedom of expression, they aren’t considered responsible for what the student may or may not say and can include religious content. If the school insists on prior approval of what will be said, they can and most likely will remove all religious content so as not to be seen as endorsing religion. On the other hand, they also cannot allow pre approved content to be anti religious either.

Go over these regulations with your kids. Discuss the most impactful ways for them to be salt and light in their school. Make sure they aren’t afraid to admit whose they are at school. They are still allowed to be a Christian light in public school. (Note: Private schools are not bound by these rules. You will need to contact school administrators for their rules.)

Tips for Raising Courageous Kids

Life can be scary. Especially for your kids. Their lack of size, life experience and knowledge can make even things that don’t concern adults incredibly frightening for them. Being a faithful, productive Christian requires courage. Your kids will need courage to make godly choices when those around them aren’t. They will need the courage to share their faith, even though they may be rejected. God may also ask your kids to do things to serve Him that are frightening in some way….whether it’s public speaking or traveling alone to minister in a country that is unfamiliar or something else entirely.

What are some things you can do to raise your kids to be courageous Christians, fully living the life God has planned for them?

  • Tell them the stories of courageous people in the Bible. So many of the people in the Bible needed courage to do what God wanted them to do. Some of those stories are obvious, but don’t forget the more obscure stories either. Your kids need lots of examples of the different ways they may need to be courageous during their lifetimes.
  • Teach them courage is not recklessness. Jumping off the roof to prove God will take care of you is reckless, not brave. Teach your kids to think through possible consequences. Is the event requiring their courage something God is indeed asking them to do, or are they just being tempted by Satan to do something reckless?
  • Remind them courage is not the lack of fear, but doing the next thing God wants you to do in spite of your fear. To your kids being kind to the person everyone at school mocks can be just as terrifying as being thrown in a den of lions. They need to learn to do the right thing no matter what.
  • Help them memorize a few Bible verses they can recite to themselves in their heads as they face their fears. What those verses are should be ultimately chosen by your kids. They know what verses comfort them. Psalms has a lot to choose from or Google Bible verses to give me courage. Memorizing the verses means they will have them ready whenever they need them….without stopping to look them up.
  • Talk through common situations when they may need courage. Walking through likely scenarios can give them helpful practice in what they can say or do. Practicing makes it more likely they will make good choices when those scenarios occur in real life.
  • Teach them how to pray for God’s help and read scriptures that reinforce their trust in God. Knowing their strength comes from God will give them the extra courage they need.
  • Remind them to follow God’s path for their lives…even when it doesn’t make sense. This is tough to teach and learn, but can be so helpful as they get older. Being courageous is a lot easier when you are sure you are doing what God wants you to do and not headed off somewhere by yourself on your own agenda.
  • Admit being courageous does not always have a happy middle, but it will have a happy ending. Some Christians mistakenly believe that when they are brave for God, nothing bad will happen. We know from the lives of Jesus, the Apostles and thousands of Christian martyrs, that just isn’t true. What God does promise is a happy ending – spending eternity with Him in Heaven. It’s why so many martyrs could endure martyrdom without rejecting God to escape it.

Being courageous isn’t easy, but using the tips above will help your kids be braver than they might have been otherwise. The world needs more courageous Christians. Wouldn’t it be great if your kids were some of them?!