The tragic images on the evening news spurred questions from a friend’s son. “Why are all the children crying?” the child asked his father. “Where are their parents? Why did God make an earthquake that would hurt Haiti?” My friend, stunned himself, turned to me and asked, “What am I supposed to say?”
Such visual images, whether of an earthquake in Chile or Haiti, a tsunami in the Pacific or a hurricane in New Orleans, are startling for many adults, but they can be even more disturbing to children. While adults had some intellectual understanding of Haiti’s impoverished condition before the earthquake, they were reminded by the resulting devastation of the fragility of human life and the inequality and unfairness that exist in our world. For young children, by contrast, such images might be the first time they have ever seen such havoc and destruction. To help them, adults should provide a context in which the worries and fears of children can be addressed, even if it is not possible to explain why the events occurred.
In the past, adults could shield children from particular tragedies by allowing them only small amounts of information so as not to frighten them. But with the immediacy of television, the Internet and other electronic media, disturbing images of all sorts are brought into a child’s home within hours, if not minutes of a disaster. It is not uncommon for children to express fear, questions and opinions about what they see.
Of course, many children witness or experience terrible events on their own block and in their homes. A neighborhood child is shot, an innocent bystander at a gang fight. A classmate is killed in a motor vehicle accident. Parents argue and their fight turns physical in front of their children. A beloved relative dies. A parent leaves the home. A child is diagnosed with a chronic or terminal condition and is subjected to treatments meant to help but that are painful and frequent.
Many adults would categorize such events as tragedies but not disasters, reserving the term disaster for a sudden event that affects many people with loss or destruction. Yet children tend to interpret all such events—whether personal, local or global—as disasters, because within the scope of their young lives and limited experience, that is how they seem. For most children living in the United States, what happens at home is more real than what happens in Indonesia or Haiti, a long way off and heard or seen only indirectly. Every person at home, however, may be affected and experience loss. For a child who lives in a dangerous urban neighborhood, all the people nearby seem afraid of the violence and possible destruction.
How Children Understand Disasters
Children younger than six frequently interpret sad or tragic events as punishment. “Why is God mad at the people of New Orleans?” a child at my parish asked me during a Liturgy of the Word for children after Hurricane Katrina. “Why is God mad at me?” another child mourned when I drew her blood in the hospital. Because young children often experience a negative consequence when they do something wrong, they view other negative occurrences as tied to some infraction of a rule. Young children usually do what is right because it lets them avoid punishment; such motivation is an early stage of moral development. Depending on personal background and upbringing, a child may understand or imagine God primarily as a stern judge, ready to mete out punishments when rules are disobeyed.
Just prior to their preteen years, children understand that doing what is right or good usually merits some reward, while doing what is wrong or bad usually brings on a punishment. Children younger than 10 or so can be rather rigid in their processing of right and wrong. They often believe that the greater the wrong, the greater the punishment. When such children see massive natural disasters like a tsunami, hurricane or earthquake that results in great loss of life and destruction, they often return to a more primitive stage of moral reasoning: The people must have done something very wrong to have deserved what happened to them. Stated another way, God must be angry with them to let such things happen. Such reasoning can unwittingly lead to an us-versus-them mentality: Others are bad while we are good, because nothing like this has befallen us.
As children approach 10 years of age, they will have more questions and doubts about whether a person merits the degree of punishment that occurs. And as children mature in reasoning, they also tend to mature in their ability to empathize with other people. They ask: How would I feel if an earthquake happened to me? Could I have done something to prevent the tragedy (or God’s anger)? Am I really so different from the people who are affected by the disaster?
How Children Respond
Like adults, some children respond to disaster with indifference, as if it does not matter in the least to them. They either avoid the disaster’s effects altogether or act with bravado, as though such bad things cannot or will not happen to them. Only a minority of children behave in this fashion in my experience, and it is often a cover for another set of feelings inside them.
A more common reaction among children to an event that adults cannot prevent or entirely control is fear. Who will protect them if the adults cannot or will not do so? Who will protect them if God seemingly does not? Children may fear an uncontrollable inanimate force like a storm or an earthquake, or a deadly germ. They may also fear a person, especially one who seems to have caused the disaster; that “person” can include God, who did not prevent it.
When adults fail, either by causing a catastrophe (like domestic violence, a drive-by shooting, a bombing) or by failing to prevent a natural disaster, children might respond with anger toward the adults and toward God, who did not stop the adults from doing the “stupid” thing they did. Children might express frustration with adult attempts to solve problems, because they judge such efforts as slow, inept or ill conceived.
Children often respond with sadness when disasters occur because someone is hurting or experiencing loss. When the children themselves are the victims, they mourn the normality and stability they have lost; often they doubt that conditions will ever get better. Even children who are not themselves victims can understand that others, especially other children, are very sad because they have lost what was important to them. Images of afflicted children on television or computer screens can be seared into the minds of the children who view them and wonder whether such a disaster will ever happen to them.
Over the last 15 years or so, I have surveyed more than 7,000 children and teens regarding their ideas about God and God’s relationship to our world. One of the questions invited respondents to ask God any question they wished. More than 98 percent of the questions these children and teens posed were not flippant or cute, but were serious questions about themselves or our troubled world. Here are two of the most common categories of questions:
Why can’t (or won’t) God make bad things stop? The issue of human suffering has been debated by philosophers and theologians for centuries, and no easy answer is forthcoming. Sometimes people behave badly. When they do, adults can help children to see that human free will has been misused. But we cannot explain why God does not stop bad things from happening to good people.
Is God mad at us? Doesn’t God love us anymore? When children see suffering, especially if it is happening to them, they wonder about God’s presence in their lives. If God is aware of what is going on, why doesn’t God respond in some way? Is it because God is angry or does not love us?
Such reasoning occurs when a child’s prayers seem to go unanswered. Children often pray for important, selfless things: that an ill relative lives, that parents stop fighting or drinking, that an illness gets better, that hungry people are fed, that there is peace in the world, in the neighborhood or at home. The notion that God would ignore someone is especially troubling to a child who has been taught to believe that God is a friend. Children know that best friends are supposed to help out in tough times. Adults need to reassure a child of God’s constant love, whenever God seems absent.
What Else Can Adults Do or Say?
Listen. All adults, not just parents, can listen carefully to children’s expressions of fear, anger, frustration and sadness. This listening should be done without making judgments about a child’s reasoning process or maturity. Letting a child express himself or herself permits the adult who is listening to place herself in the child’s place.
Don’t interrupt. If clarification of a statement is needed, adults should wait until a child is finished speaking and then request the clarification.
Show humility. Most children know that adults do not have all the answers. Why, then, do many of us pretend that we do, especially when speaking with children? When a child asks a question, we should answer it to the best of our ability. If we do not know the answer, we should never be afraid to answer honestly, “I don’t know.” Some adults believe that children are sure to reject such a response. But in my experience, children welcome it because it proves that children are not the only ones who do not understand. This can create rapport between a child and an adult, especially if the adult commiserates with the child: Yes, I don’t understand why such bad things happen; I hate it too.
Assure a child that he or she will not be abandoned. Children fear abandonment in times of crisis. They are especially afraid when they hear stories of other children being abandoned. Adults can reassure children that someone will always be there for them, even if their parents cannot be.
Provide practical suggestions as to what a child can do to alleviate the suffering of others. Many children are eager to do something when a tragedy or disaster occurs, but they recognize their relative powerlessness. Adults can suggest manageable volunteer projects, donations or reading material that will spark a child’s interest and ability to respond with help.
Pray with a child. Praying with a child gives a strong and loving message that we are all in this together. If possible, let the child lead the prayer. Praying demonstrates that both adults and children need God in good times as well as bad and that God is there for us. It can remind us to whom we belong, even when the worst that we can imagine has happened.