Talking to Your Kids about Tragedy
Parents strive to shield their children from painful situations. We want their childhoods filled with laughter, joy, and a sense of being carefree because we all know that one day the inevitable will happen – our children will see, experience, and feel the pain from tragedies. Many times these horrible situations will be far removed from our children. It will be something they hear about at school, see on television, or read about online. There are times, however, where our children experience the unfathomable. They may still be little or they may be adults, but as parents one thing never changes: we don’t want them to ever feel that pain.
Nonetheless the world is a scary and unforgiving place. It is our job as parents to do our best to teach our children how to cope with such horrific events such as the massacre in Orlando, and how to reach beyond the initial scope of pain and hate to one of empathy and love for those most affected.
Most of us are not directly affected by the tragedies shown on the daily news. They are something we see on television or read about online, but after the initial pain to our hearts we move on with our days. We continue to shuffle our kids to school and head off to work, only to come home and be greeted by those same faces you said goodbye to only hours earlier. Many of us will not experience the horrific loss shown in the five minute clips or scrolling on the bottom of the screen on our news station.
However, despite a parent’s best efforts, children learn about the true nature of humanity at some point in their lives. More often than not, this point comes much earlier than most parents would like. They hear about it at school or on the radio as you’re driving them to soccer practice. They read about it online as they are doing their homework. You may have the news playing as you make dinner, thinking they aren’t really listening – but they are listening. Their ears are always open and their eyes are always watching. So how does a parent talk to their kids about things that may seem unfathomable in their young minds?
Whether or not you choose to face the news of a significant event head on with your child is up to you. Especially for school age children, experts state that talking with your children about a tragedy before they hear about it from someone else may help them cope better and feel safe. Also allowing your child to talk about their feelings may help them process the events and come to a general level of understanding.
If your child is dealing with the effects of a tragedy not directly connected to them or your community, try these tips:
- Preschool – Explain, in as plain terms as possible, what happened and the effects of the event on the community (i.e., “A bad man went into a crowded room and hurt many people. Now people that live there want to help, and are donating blood/giving food/giving hugs.” Allow your child to ask questions, and perhaps talk about how you can help from afar- like making a card to send to the victim’s families.
- Elementary/Middle School Age – For those that may have a higher level of understanding of such events, allow them to tell you what they think happened and correct their retelling as needed. Discuss how you can help if they are interested.
- Upper Middle School/High School Age – Children who are entering adulthood may want to be more proactive in their approach to the event. Discuss their feelings, and talk over their opinions on how the families directly affected must be feeling. Emphasize empathy for the victims and their families, and discuss how the community and the government could help.
Unfortunately, there will be times in every person’s life that they will experience some level of personal tragedy. It may be on a large scale like the shooting in Orlando or on a smaller scale like the death of a loved one, but no matter what, a child’s feelings and thoughts should be addressed. The amount of support during a significant event like a personal tragedy depends on several factors, to include the age of the child, the child’s personality and coping strategies, and the severity of the tragedy.
Obviously, if your child experiences something significant like a shooting or extreme natural disaster you may need to seek professional counseling. Only a professional can properly assess whether a child is managing a crisis appropriately. However, your child may express themselves in a variety of ways when experiencing a significant loss or a traumatic event. The MayoClinic explains that your child may experience a range of emotions, including fear, stress, and shock.
- Preschool – Children may have separation anxiety, and they may also mimic your behaviors as a result of your emotions. They may also regress in their potty training or in other acquired skills.
- Elementary/Middle School Age – Children at this age may have trouble sleeping, and they may start to fear going to school. They may also show aggression for no apparent reason.
- Upper Middle School/High School Age – Some children may deny that they are affected by the recent tragedy. Many will seclude themselves or begin to act out. They may also start to have physical discomfort and not be able to pinpoint the reason.
What to Do
All children react differently to events they experience. Whether the tragedy in question is one they experience first hand or one they hear about on television does not mean they won’t have a severe reaction. The MayoClinic suggests that if your child is displaying abnormal behaviors that is affecting his or her daily life for two to four weeks, then seek help from a mental health professional. However, there are things that parents can do at home to help their children cope with some of their feelings.
- Be Aware of Yourself – Your children, no matter their age, will be watching your reactions. It is ok for a child to see an adult cry or be angry, but be sure to walk away from your child if you feel your emotions are too intense.
- Reassure Their Safety – Remind your child that they are safe, and that your family is safe. If you have a family plan in the event of an emergency, it is a good time to go over it. If you don’t have one, now is a good time to sit down as a family and create one.
- Maintain the Routine – Children, especially young ones, thrive on routine. Take time to mourn what was lost, but don’t let it take over your daily lives. Resume normalcy to help your child cope with their days.
- Spend Time Together – Make an extra effort to just spend time together as a family – a family movie night, game night, or special pizza dinner can make all the difference to a child who is hurting.
- Help – Find ways to help the community that has been affected by the tragedy. This is especially good for older children who are wanting to help and are able to respond in a positive way.
As parents we feel our most important job is to protect our children. But despite our best efforts to stow away their innocence and shield them from the troubles of the world, they will one day grow older and learn of the darker side of life. But, we as parents, are not lost. We can provide our children with the love, the stability, and the knowledge that there are good people in the world that are willing to help in the face of tragedy. We can teach our children empathy, civic duty, and community outreach. We can show them that there are people out there that will give their time, their blood, their money, and their tears to those affected by a crisis.
We are all Mr. Rodger’s mom when we say, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
For more tips on how to talk to your children about tragedies, visit the following resources:
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