In a previous Easter season, a worried mother sent this note:
One of the kids at my son’s preschool told him about the crucifixion, and what happened, with all the exact details and he was horrified. Telling him about Easter Sunday did not make him feel better. He has been crying about this at night and is afraid of regular pictures of Jesus in a book. I hope it’s OK to ask this question because it’s about religion and everybody has their own opinion. I just wanted to know if any of you grandmas ever ran into a situation like this and what you did.
You know what they say about avoiding the topics of politics and religion. But that rule doesn’t apply to the Grandmothers.
We have two side observations on the subject of friends who tell our children frightening things:
- The friends are scared themselves, and try to relieve their fear by scaring someone else.
- It can be very difficult to protect our children from terrifying stories. Even if our children don’t see the scary movie/television program/book themselves, one of their friends is sure to tell them about it.
But what to do about your child who is having nightmares about Jesus? Already you have done the most important thing: You took your child seriously; you didn’t try to make him feel better with platitudes; you listened, you empathized. You didn’t burden him with theological concepts that he wouldn’t understand and that would trouble him further.
Crucifixion is indeed a hideously cruel fate to contemplate. We adults who have been looking at paintings, carvings and other reproductions of the crucifixion all our lives have become somewhat accustomed to the idea, not allowing ourselves to think about the cruelty in detail. But a sensitive child learning about it for the first time might understandably be horrified. You have probably already told him that the picture of Jesus on the cross is hard for all of us to look at and think about, and that you are not surprised the story makes him scared and sad.
So, first you listen, realizing that preschool children think egocentrically, hearing things in the context of “if it happened once, then it could happen to me or my family.” Perhaps he will have trouble articulating his fear, and you will have to listen carefully to hear his very concrete interpretation of what his friend told him. You might ask him what he thinks might happen because of this story. Then, when you are sure you have heard him and that he feels understood, you might try comforting and reassuring him with whichever of the following seem most applicable, or a combination:
- Jesus lived far, far away and a long, long time ago. What happened to him won’t happen now to you or anybody you know. We will keep you safe at home and your teachers and the people who are in charge of our city will keep our neighborhood safe.
- The picture of Jesus on the cross can be very scary and you don’t need to look at it or be worried by it. When you are older you may be ready to understand more about Jesus and the worry won’t feel so big.
- Jesus was someone who wanted to help people talk to one another, to use words, instead of hurting. Unfortunately, there were some bad guys who hadn’t gotten help to use words and they were mean to him. That was long ago before people had TV and cars and a lot of the safety rules we have now. Now, people work very hard to help one another to use words. They can even help bad guys learn to use words.
You didn’t mention if church attendance has become a problem, but we can certainly imagine it becoming one.
Children can be introduced to religion gradually, starting simply with messages about how to be kind and loving to our family and friends. If it is a family tradition to go to church and the figure of Jesus on the cross is unavoidable, do lots of planning with your child ahead of time. Perhaps the child can bring a coloring book and focus on that during the service, or perhaps the adults can take turns staying outside with the child. It wouldn’t be helpful to contaminate his introduction to religion by forcing situations that frighten him.
With that kind of loving attention and acceptance of his fear as very real, the fear will slowly fade.