It’s been a rough month for a lot of people around the United States.
As I type, there are children in Florida and Montana and Texas whose lives have been precisely, heart-rendingly divided into before and after.
In all these dark days, there is a sliver of light: God has given our kids wisdom in all sorts of ways to help their friends; to be people of refuge. In fact, in some ways, kids will be better equipped to help their friends than adults will be. There’s automatic rapport and connection, automatic ways to say things in an understandable way.
So I’m wondering. How can we help our kids be emotionally safe places when their friends are hurting?
- Open kids’ eyes.
I don’t know that I need to tell you most kids are a little more naturally self-absorbed. If you’ve ever felt like you were competing with Minecraft for your child’s attention, you’re with me. Easy ways to create attentiveness to other kids’ needs:
- When your kids are talking about another child’s problems at school—even kids who are getting in trouble—help them peek behind the scenes at what could be going on in that child’s life. What are they feeling? What might their world be like at home? (My own eyes were opened when I found out years later that a “mean girl” in my life had been undergoing her parents’ divorce.)
- When sending your kids to school, encourage them to look out for other kids—on the playground, at the lunch table. I’m sure there’s a less Christian-ese way to say it, but I frequently remind my kids to “be a blessing” to teachers and kids.
- Grow as a more emotionally-whole and -healthy parent yourself. Click here for 11 ideas on this.
- Listen first.
The “key” to communicate: Being a “safe place” means people feel they can come to us, be real—and be accepted, not rejected. (More ideas for big people on this here.)
I’ve thought about this after a conversation we had with our kids a few months ago, after watching this . Often my kids are eager to help when others are hurting. But my husband looked them in the eyes and explained that helping isn’t always telling people what we think they need to hear. We can explain to kids that people aren’t like puzzles, just waiting for us to plug in the right piece of advice.
For kids, we might put it this way: Imagine your friend is lost in a forest with a leg that’s hurt. They’ve got a guide on a walkie-talkie who’s got a map. Does your friend need Walkie-Talkie Dude to lead them out? Absolutely. But Walkie-Talkie Dude might not see the cave on the map. He can’t get you bandages or a splint. So Walkie-Talkie-Dude asks, Where are you? And says, Tell me what you see around you. And Sit down—first let’s get you able to walk.
And BTW: Remind kids they don’t have to be Walkie-Talkie Dude with all the answers. They can be Band-Aid Girl, or Guy That Sits In the Dark Cave until You’re Ready to Walk Out. The idea is “being there.” They can ask themselves, What does it look like to love this person well right now? (And they can ask Holy Spirit! It’s a great opportunity to help kids learn to pray in the back of their minds while they listen to a friend).
- Teach practical reflective listening skills.
So perhaps a great way to equip kids is to first encourage them to first, listen. God asks great questions to people in the Bible, even though He already knows the answers. Explain to kids that people of all ages first need to tell their story; to be heard. To have someone shake their head and say, “That really stinks.”
To help with this, they can ask great questions, and respond with good listening skills—like these:
Pay attention when someone’s talking (this means no electronics, including phones; turn off the TV).
- You might stop what you’re doing and make time to talk, even if you really like what you’re doing.
- Look in the person’s eyes.
- Make sure you’re talking in a place where they won’t worry about other people hearing your conversation. (Parents, here are a few ideas about making your house an “open house” that welcomes other kids.)
- Don’t interrupt.
- You can show that you hear them by nodding or making small noises (“Uh-huh,” “Wow!”, “Oh, man…” to show you understand.)
Repeat back a little of what you heard, like this:
- “So… [repeat back a little of the story]”
- “What did you mean when you said…”
Let the person know that what they’re feeling is okay. I tell my kids that feelings are like dashboard lights in a car: They’re not wrong—but they tell us what’s going on under the hood. It’s what we do with them that gets to be right or wrong.
- “I think it’s okay that you feel…”
- You can relate your own story—but keep things focused on the other person, rather than showing that your story is more interesting or that you would like attention, too. Tell your story if it shows them, “I understand a little of how you feel.”
Show them they’re okay. This part can be hard for kids. Sometimes, they might have an immediate opinion about what they’ve been told: “That’s wrong!” Or, “You’re gross!”
They might even have some fear.
So kids can ask themselves, “How can I help this person know that I accept them no matter what they’ve told me, and they don’t have to be embarrassed?” Talk about what this might look like beforehand. Role play a bit with an age-appropriate example.
Help them know when to get help. Communicate to kids that passing on someone’s secrets to friends automatically makes them an unsafe friend. Secrets are hard to keep—but the reasons we usually tell them might be because we want to have interesting contributions, or be superior, or have someone else like us. Kids do need to tell a secret to an adult if something is dangerous, or if it involves touch or a gift. I find this article from Kidpower.org on secrets and non-secrets very insightful.
Help us out: How do you help kids become a safe place for others?