Parents as pastors

Leading children through times of change

Unsettled times make for unsettled children.

At the start of this year, we moved from Launceston to Hobart. We had spent quite a lot of time trying to prepare our children for the move. However, when we arrived, we found that they were behaving in ways that were out of character.

It really should have been obvious to me, but I had assumed that my kids, still being young, would make friends quickly and would not have had a strong attachment to Launceston. In the end, it took three to four months before my youngest child started to feel like he belonged in our new home. It took that time for him to make new friends, to get used to new routines, and to feel that his new life really was his life.

I had underestimated the level of anxiety that he would feel, leaving behind the only city he had known and starting afresh in a new place.

It strikes me that there are similarities for some families in some of our churches as we grapple with the response to redress. There are some people who face the prospect of leaving behind what they have known, not yet knowing what they are moving to.

The valley of the shadow of death

A friend of mine once described time of change as ‘walking through the valley of the shadow of death’. You can remember the things that you left behind. The things that you love and miss take on a rosier glow than they had in real life. The things that you disliked are forgotten or are minimised. All that you experience is the challenge of being somewhere you don’t want to be, not knowing how the story is going to end.

It reminds me of a time when I took a group of kids in grades 5 to 8 on a bushwalking camp at Freycinet National Park. After some hours of walking, we got to the point where we needed to cross the isthmus. Moving away from the beach, it was difficult to see how far the trail went. It was hot, the air was still. The insects were biting. The kids were all quite tired, and some of the less fit kids started to fall by the wayside.

‘Just bury me here!’ They would say.

‘Avenge my death.’

Eventually, I would haul one of them up by the hand and we would walk on for another five minutes before the whole thing would be repeated again. For many of these kids, they had never visited the national park, and had no idea what to expect. They also  weren’t used to walking and did not know of their own capacity or ability.

A non-anxious presence

The key to helping children through the valley of the shadow of death is two things: firstly, to cast a vision; and secondly, to be a non-anxious presence.

When you’re in the middle of the valley of the shadow of death it can be difficult to continue, because you do not know where you’re going. As a parent, if I’m able to describe to my son or my daughter what they can expect when we get through the difficult patch, it makes it much easier for them to keep on going. For my son as he was settling into a new school, that meant drawing his attention to the good things that happened each day. It meant helping him to recognise a new friendship forming. It meant making time to encourage, support and nurture the relationships he was making with other children in the neighbourhood and in his school.

For the children on the bushwalking camp, that meant painting a verbal picture of the glorious white sands that awaited at Wineglass Bay beach. It meant painting a picture of being able to sit down on the beach, take sweaty boots off and rest hot, tired feet in cool water. For children of families who are facing an uncertain church future, it might mean describing what can be expected when the difficult process of change is completed. That might require a certain amount of imagination, and a significant amount of trust in God’s goodness.

While working to cast a vision like this, it is important to be a non-anxious presence. This doesn’t mean that you will be unaffected yourself by the process of change. You should expect to experience all of the highs and lows, the anxiety and the elation, it comes with new situations. It does however mean that you do not allow these feelings to dominate your behaviour. Recognising these feelings in yourself, it is possible to set them aside (at least in the moment) and focus on the needs of your child. If a child can see its parent remaining calm in the face of trouble, that parent becomes a point of stability and calm from which to deal with the child’s own emotions.

James Oakley


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