No matter what the illness may be, it’s hard to watch children suffer. Whether facing a sudden catastrophic diagnosis, a chronic condition, or even common childhood ailments (which can still be very scary!), walking with a child through health problems can be a frightening and painful process for both caregiver and patient. Even parents and caregivers who have worked hard to develop a mature perspective and coping skills where their own health is concerned will often find a much more difficult dynamic at play when a child is the one who falls ill. Good and godly instincts that compel us to nurture and protect vulnerable children also provoke rising levels of stress and anxiety when we see them in distress.
In addition to the obvious difficulty of walking through the stress of the illness itself—the diagnosis (or the chasing down of one that has eluded you so far), the treatment, and Lord willing, the recovery—we also have the challenge of helping our children understand what is happening to them and why. When children get sick, they may be experiencing profound distress and confusion, as well as a loss of their sense of safety and security. It’s enough to raise big questions in their little hearts, and we have the privilege of shepherding them through it.
But what a daunting task that can be! We want to provide comfort, but sometimes we struggle to find the right words for these difficult conversations. When health struggles arise and things don’t seem to be going well, how can we guide our children through this strenuous journey and continue to faithfully point them to God?
Shepherding a Child through Illness
Let’s consider four suggestions for how to shepherd our children through illness and encourage their faith during hard times.
1. Acknowledge the Hard Reality
When facing a difficult illness with their children, many well-intentioned parents follow a protective impulse that seeks to downplay or cover up the seriousness of the situation. From a certain standpoint, this makes good sense—if you could spare your child the traumatic realization of what’s happening, wouldn’t you want to? The problem with this tactic, however, is that children are far more perceptive than we give them credit for. If a child were in a state of blissful ignorance, one might be forgiven for allowing them to remain that way. But when they are facing a difficult illness, most children are neither blissful nor ignorant. They know something is not right, so it isn’t helpful to pretend otherwise. They may not be able to put words to their distress or fully grasp what is going on, but even very young children have an inherent sense of the wrongness of suffering. To dismiss or sugarcoat that reality is to try to convince them of something that, deep down, they know is not true. Breaching their trust in order to achieve short-term placation is not worth it in the long run.
Go ahead and acknowledge the difficult truth of the situation. Instead of minimizing or dismissing what they are experiencing, honor them by being there for them as they process the pain in their own age-appropriate way. When bad things are obviously happening, it’s okay to say it’s not okay. False platitudes can never comfort as much as your mere presence down in the valley. Give them some simple expression: “This stinks, but I’m right here with you, and Jesus is too. We’re going to trust him to give us what we need in this situation. I’m so sorry you are hurting. I love you.”
2. Put Them on a Firm Foundation
Even (especially!) in the midst of hardship, we get to encourage our children to rest on these bedrock truths: God is in control and he cares for us deeply. Memorize and recite with your family the good news that “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him” (Proverbs 30:5). For those who need to find refuge, for those who are battered and broken, God is a shield of protection. He is also a strong tower (Proverbs 18:10), our rock, fortress, and deliverer (2 Samuel 22:2), and under his wings we will find refuge (Psalm 91:4). Concrete imagery like this from Scripture can help give your child (and you) handholds in the midst of a fearful experience.
When your child is suffering under the weight of his or her burdens, remind them that the affliction is real, but it does not get the final say in our story. God is still on his throne, ordaining all things—yes, even illness—for our good and his glory. This may be hard to appreciate as we walk through the valley, but there is comfort in knowing that the Lord is our guiding Shepherd along the way (Psalm 23). He is not baffled by infections or injuries or cancer diagnoses; he has already defeated death and has green pastures in store for us. Beckon your children to the trustworthy shelter of God our refuge and our fortress (Psalm 91:2).”
3. Surround Them with a Faithful Community
When experiencing a tragedy, we would do well to remember the widely quoted advice of Mister Rogers: “Look for the helpers.” This is a good reminder for our children that even in frightening situations, we can always find people who love us and want to help us make it through. We are not supposed to go through trials alone. Help can come from all directions, but for followers of Jesus the church is called to play a special role in caring for each another. When hard times come, a faithful church community can be a lifeline, providing practical assistance and spiritual encouragement as we live out the command to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).
As a parent or caregiver, you can likely appreciate the obvious benefit of having a support network during your family’s time of need. When you’re focusing all of your energy on advocating for your child’s health and well-being, it’s helpful to have people in your life who you know you can lean on, who embody the truth that belonging to one another in Christ is a wonderful thing. People who simply remind you that you’re not alone. God has planted sounding boards and fellow wayfarers across your church community; let them serve you and then, when the time comes, you’ll be better equipped to play that role for someone else in their time of need.
And while the church is living out this calling, they will also be providing your child with a front-row seat to the beauty of God’s Spirit at work in and through his people.
4. Point Them to Our Ultimate Hope
Even as we do our best to walk faithfully through the valley, we often find ourselves needing to fend off frustrations, fears, and doubts—in our own heart as well as our child’s. But God, who promises us that he is there with us in the depths of the valley, also calls us to look up and out of the valley to the hope that lies beyond it. With God, there is hope—ultimate hope—and it reminds us that even though our present pain and affliction are real, they are not final. In this fallen world, we have to reckon with sickness and death, but this will not always be so. The Lord is our Shepherd. As we have seen, he has already defeated death and is leading us to still waters and green pastures. Sometimes we have the great joy of experiencing those green pastures. Sometimes we have the great joy of experiencing those green pastures here and now as we make it to the end of a hard season of suffering. But ultimately, the Good Shepherd has a more lasting pasture in mind: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3–4). One day, God will bring eternal healing as he restores all things to himself. Even when our children are hurting, we have the privilege of nurturing their faith—and ours—as we point them to this beautiful truth.
Excerpt adapted from When Your Child is Ill: Nurturing Faith in Hard Times ©2022 by Scott James. Used by permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.
When Your Child is Ill: Nurturing Faith in Hard Times
Walking with a child through health problems can be a frightening and painful process for both parents and their children, whether facing a sudden catastrophic diagnosis, a chronic condition, or even common childhood ailments. Children want to understand what is happening and why, and parents may face rising fear and anxiety when their children are in distress. How do you guide your child through this difficult experience?