The Lord is powerful enough to always console us. But continuous consolation will harm us—just as if the sun were to always shine and rain to always pour down, then everything would burn up or be trampled down. It is good that they take turns.
- St. Anatoly
It was a beautiful summer day; the weather was not too hot and there was just enough of a cool breeze blowing. A mother sat on the patio, in a rare moment of relaxation, watching her two children, Nicholas, 8, and Angie, 6, playing together. They were chasing each other and Nicholas turned to his little sister and said, “You can’t catch me!” The mother watched her son take off, leaving Angie behind. Then she looked at Angie who had stopped and was trying to catch her breath. She couldn’t catch her brother or her breath so she reached into her pocket and pulled out her inhaler and took in a deep puff. Once she regained her breath, she wandered over to her mother with a look of utter despair. “Why can’t I run like Nicholas and all the other kids? It’s not fair! Why did God give me asthma?” Tears were rolling down her cheek by this time, and her mother was trying to hold back her own. She held little Angie close in her lap and kissed her on her head. She didn’t know what to tell her. In her mind, she wondered the same—why did God give this to her child?
Suffering (in a big or small way) can be a difficult thing to comprehend on a spiritual level but it becomes even more difficult when trying to help a young child comprehend it.
When suffering or sacrifice enter a child’s life, he will learn how to react from witnessing others’ patience and trust in God. This concerns minor irritations as well as great trials. Being faithful in small (or relatively small) trials prepares us for great trials (Luke 16:10). We do not necessarily make everything easy for a child. Certainly we are there to give relief and assistance; we show where comfort and help are readily to be found. But sometimes we also try to make forbearance easier for the child by our encouragement. This is important in cultures where children are used to instant gratification.—from Conversations with Children by Sister Magdalene
But how do we, as parents, help our children when we ourselves still struggle with suffering in our own lives? Before we begin, there is one thing we have to remember as parents—it is okay to say, “I don’t know.” As parents we want to have all the answers for our children but this is neither realistic nor helpful to them. It is much healthier for them to learn that life is a state of constant learning no matter what age we are. This is especially true when it comes to the topic of God and His will for our life. As difficult as it can be at times, we must have hope and trust that whatever difficulties challenge us, it is not because God has forgotten nor abandoned us. When the crowd asked Jesus whether the man born blind was that way because of his own sin or his parents, He replied that neither was the case. His condition was intended to manifest God’s glory (John 9).
This is why when we deal with suffering it can be difficult to understand and convey why things are happening. St. Paul writes of suffering (and remember, he suffered a lot), “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18). This can be difficult to remember or to find consolation from when we are in the midst of trials.
We will all suffer at some point in our lives—physically and emotionally. Whether it is countless scrapes and bruises experienced through their growing years, a conflict with a best friend, or something much more serious, our children too will suffer no matter how hard we try to prevent it. St. Paul reminds us that, “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:2) Here are some practical things you can do to begin helping your child deal with suffering.
Talk a little—listen a lot
When our child comes to us with frustration—no matter what age they are—we need to listen to them. To really listen means we give them our undivided attention at that moment or set a time when we can do so. Although it is tempting as parents to try to fix their problems, there are instances when this is not helpful and other times where no matter our best efforts, we can’t make it better. We need to be mindful of our want to fix things because it can often get in the way of just listening to our child. If they are angry, sad, or scared we shouldn’t try to talk them out of it—we should just be present with them and their feelings, loving them no matter what. When we listen, we are helping our children sort out their world and make sense of things that are confusing, scary, and difficult.
While listening, we will need to talk as well—remember less is more. The point of your words should be to help your child make sense of their feelings and reassure them that they are loved. It is not important that your child understand the entire theology of suffering in the grand scheme of man’s salvation. However, it is very important that they know that God loves them and is there for them in their pain. You can look at the examples of the saints and how many of them were made perfect through immense suffering.
Pray more both with and for your child
How often throughout our day do we pause and ask God to guide us as we raise our children? When we turn to God for answers, we recognize that He is the answer for us and our children. So before you talk with your child, spend time in prayer. Elder Porphyrios advised, “Whatever you want to say to them [your children] say it with prayers…When you want to say something to your child, say it to the Mother of God, and she will do the work. Your prayer will become a spiritual hug which embraces your child and captivates them.”
It is equally important that we teach our children to turn to God in prayer for all things. Just as your child runs and jumps into your lap when they are upset, we need to then teach them to run and jump in their Heavenly Father’s lap for reassurance. Help them write a prayer to God about their frustration. Teach them that God always answers prayers for our good even if we can’t see the answer right away. Even if they are angry at God—yes, this may be the emotion you hear—they still need to talk to Him. Help them understand what we mean when we pray “thy will be done.” Don’t forget to ask others to pray for your child and your family as well. Give family names for your priest to remember in prayer and add to any prayer list your parish may have.
Seek support and counsel
In society today, we are more isolated from one another. We were not created to live in isolation and handle all of our difficulties ourselves. In the Old Testament we read, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. but woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10). Look to family, friends, and especially your parish for support during struggles. Seek guidance from your parish priest or even a professional counselor if the sufferings of your child or your family are too great for you to handle.
He allows even bad things to happen to us as He did to His own Son because He is at work in our lives testing us, strengthening us, molding us, making us, preparing us for eternity.
—Taken from "Daily Vitamins for Spiritual Growth Volume I," by Fr. Anthony Coniaris
May God’s love and mercy be felt by all of His families in times of suffering and wellness.
Melissa Tsongranis is the associate director of the Center for Family Care. Her background and education is in Early Childhood Special Education and Family Education from Sacramento State University. She and her husband, George, have one son, Nomikos.