Talking to Children About A National Tragedy

When a national tragedy strikes—either in the form of a mass shooting, a natural disaster or, any other form of large scale trauma—it can be difficult to know how to process it. What may be more difficult is figuring out how to approach this process with children. Thanks to mass and social media, home and school are no longer the only places where children will receive information concerning current events. Parents and guardians should, therefore, make the effort to not only answer their kids’ questions but to also start the conversation and ask their kids about what they have heard and how they feel about it. It is important that the information children have is not only accurate but also provides them with a sense of security and empowerment. Of course, every situation is unique, but generally speaking, there are some important steps for parents concerned their children’s wellness in the wake of national tragedies.

Account for Age.
There are key differences in how to approach discussions with children in the age range of pre-school, elementary school and early middle school, and late middle school and high school. Across the board, however, parents should have a calm and gentle tone, explaining what happened as simply as possible in words the child will understand.
For the first group, TV personality and therapist Dr. Phil recommends that parents “[d]on’t use euphemisms. Tell it straight. Don’t use a whispery voice. That just makes it more scary.” For instance, if a severe flood causes a local high-traffic road bridge to collapse, one might say that the water caused the bridge to fall and that many people were hurt, but that people are making sure the roads are safe.

The second group of children are likely to have more questions, particularly about whether they are safe, and may have trouble separating reality from fantasy. In the case of mass shootings, for example, parents should stress that these events are actually quite rare and that their kids should not be afraid to continue attending school or going out to the mall or movies with their friends. Psychologists agree that this message communicates courage and resilience in the face of unavoidably tragic life events.

The final group will not only be brimming with questions but will also be interested in recovery efforts and is likely to have strong opinions about the causes and the ways to prevent such events. Efforts to get involved in the community in some way should be encouraged, and their impact may be buttressed by parental participation.

Be Consistent.
Parents might try to feel less anxious by keeping their children under constant surveillance in the wake of, say, a terrorist attack or threat. For the wellbeing of children, however, it is important that there is no disruption of their daily routines. If there is a sudden change in a system they are used to, it may be easier for them to sense the tension, and anxieties could be heightened. This point comes back to the notion of promoting resilience and perseverance in difficult times. Psychologists and religious leaders alike, stress the importance of focusing on the positive in the aftermath of tragedy. Parents with young children might walk them through their day using concrete examples, such as “We will go to the park, then I will drop you off at Grandma’s house. She will read to you before bed just like the last time you visited.”

Be Honest, But Don’t Overshare.
Parents should not take their children’s intelligence for granted. They are as familiar with you as you are with them, so they will most likely be able to tell if you are trying to sugarcoat the information or lie altogether. Older children may even interpret such behavior as an inability for you to trust them or see them as mature. At the same time, parents shouldn’t overwhelm their kids with more information than they can process. Pay attention to how your children are reacting throughout the conversation. Do not go beyond the questions they ask, especially among younger children who will not be able to process heavy topics like death concretely.

Be Observant.
In situations when extreme violence may have occurred, either within your community or on a more massive scale, it is not unusual for children to regress in their behavior to how they acted when they were a little younger. This behavior may result from a desire for someone—the parent—to reassure them that everything will be okay and that they will be taken care of. To foster a sense of closeness and security, the National Association of School Psychologists suggests that parent be extra attentive during the week following a tragedy. This may involve spending some extra time reading to or playing with younger kids before bed, for example. As you talk to your children, they should return to their usual selves. If the child appears to withdraw for longer than normal or if normal reactions such as sadness, anger, anxiety, loss of appetite or even guilt persist for more than a few months, then parents should encourage their children to express their emotions constructively, through writing or art, for instance. It may also be necessary for parents to seek professional help.

Ask for Help.
This brings us to the next point. You don’t have to do this alone. First of all, parents will have their own anxieties, and it can be difficult to be a model of calm, stability and assurance for your children if your nerves remain visibly shaken. There is absolutely no reason to feel guilty or weak for needing to seek assistance, either in the form of family, friends, a clinical expert or a person of faith. In fact, it’s encouraged. Partnering with other parents in your neighborhood or community can also help foster a safe environment for your children outside of the home. What is important is that you as a parent are able to be there for your kids, and that means you need to take care of yourself, too.

Participation is important for kids of all ages. Older kids who may feel like they need to “just do something” after a tragedy can be encouraged to be more vigilant by watching for isolated packages or unattended bags, for instance, and to alert authorities if they see anything or anyone acting suspicious. Younger kids can also be reminded that “telling is not tattling” if there really is something suspicious. Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, author of “Smart Parenting for Smart Kids,” says parents can “[f]ind a child-sized way to take action” like “saying a prayer together, or raising money, or signing a petition, or sending a card or letter.” There are many ways through which parents and children can feel and be empowered.

Minimize News Intake.
The American Psychological Association recommends limiting the amount of time watching the news, as this can actually heighten anxieties in both parents and children. This is especially important for younger children, who may not be able to handle or process the images they might see.

Use Effective Non-Verbal Communication.
Finally, parents should be just as mindful of what they don’t say as what they do. While it is important that parents are able to express their opinions without putting down their children’s, it is equally important that they help their kids know they’re respected by simply listening. Let your children express their ideas and interpretations of events that have recently unfolded without interrupting them. Most importantly, when everything is said and done, remind your children they are safe and loved by giving them a hug.

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