In a recent online roundtable with children’s ministry directors, some colleagues and I were considering how the COVID-19 pandemic that we’re all grappling with will affect children. Topics we talked about included these:
- What is the ultimate goal in ministry to children?
- Are there things that we are learning about ministry during the pandemic that might open up new opportunities for ministry?
- What does it mean to advocate for children?
- What are the unintended messages we send to children related to the decisions we make about how and when to gather again?
- Will procedures that we put in place when we return to in-person ministry be sustainable over the long haul?
As we talked, an unexpected topic that came up was that of resilience. Children, like adults, encounter hardships, such as the current global pandemic. Sometimes the losses they experience are relatively small, like grieving that they are no longer learning in a classroom. Other times the loss is significantly larger, such as a death of someone they love.
Children’s grief is often displayed in acting out or lashing out. Sometimes it manifests as oppositional or isolating behaviors, or even self-harm. Psychologists study what factors can help a child get through times like this. The term “resilience” is used to indicate the ability to deal with and recover from hardships or difficulties in life. Clinically, for children it means that they are able to continue to reach developmental milestones and continue to develop emotionally in ways appropriate to their age and ability. Children who are resilient still grieve their losses, but they manage to grieve in ways that do not completely derail their lives.
Shelly Melia, a therapist and professor at Dallas Baptist Seminary, became interested in studying resilience after her husband was killed in an automobile accident, leaving her with three young children. Her video presentation Raising Resilient Children: 5 Tips for Parenting Through a Pandemic is helpful.
Melia says there are five “keys,” or protective factors, that contribute to a child’s capacity for resilience:
- Nurture: caring adults work with and support the child’s temperament, personality, and ability to express their feelings in age-appropriate ways.
- Community: the child has strong ties to school, neighborhood, sports teams, and/or other groups.
- Relationships: the child has good relationships with others outside the family who care about them.
- Family: the child has a core group that provides a sense of belonging and attachment, warmth, and limits.
- Faith: the child develops sustaining beliefs and behaviors.
Melia says that children who do not have all five of these factors often still do fine, as they lean into the factors that they do have. And many traumatic experiences only affect one or two of the resilience factors. A divorce, for example, might affect the family while leaving other factors intact. COVID-19, however, is a population trauma. It is a large-scale disaster (like, for example, Hurricane Katrina) that impacts all of the resilience factors, making life especially difficult.
While some therapists ignore the role of faith, faith can have an impact on each of the other four protective factors. This is certainly one place where the church can play an active role. We can encourage families to notice the times God has helped them. Invite them to be specific, perhaps creating a chart on the wall in their home where they can write things as they think of them. This is one way to recall and tell stories of God’s protection and care.
Some other suggestions for supporting children faithfully are:
- Be willing to honestly, but in an age-appropriate manner, respond to the hard questions children ask.
- Read stories, in the Bible and elsewhere, of people who knew God was with them as they went through difficulty.
- Share Scripture passages that help remind us of God’s care. Pick one that speaks to you and find a place in your home to display it so you are reminded of it often.
- Pray specifically for people who are serving others during this time. Highlight people who are helping.
God does not promise to bring us through times of hardship on any particular timeline, but God does promise to walk with us all the way. As we continue in this pandemic, the church and the larger faith community can help shape the narrative of how God continued to love and care for people—adults, teens, and children alike—as the whole world deals with this sickness. We need to be prepared to be salt and light as, with God’s help, we come through this together.