How To Talk To Your Child About Tragedies: Five Tips For Parents
by Eyob Kassa, MA
Sadly, we live in a broken world. In this broken world, grief and loss come in many forms. The recent tragic school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT is a good example of the kind of atrocious tragedy which is difficult for us to process, and painful and confusing to try to explain to our children. What was supposed to be a safe place of learning and growing turned into a mass shooting and killing zone. When such a tragedy takes place, it is difficult to comprehend as adults, let alone as children. Yet our children do need explanations, and may ask inescapable questions, to which we as adults struggle to find any kind of explanation. How do we explain to our children a reality that makes no sense to us?
When unspeakable tragedies such as acts of terrorism, mass shootings, catastrophic natural disasters, or terrible accidents take place, it is very important to address, discuss and process the situations with our children. However, the question is about how and what to discuss with our children. And most parents question how to do this in a way that does not confuse or further frighten our children. In most cases the discussion about tragic situations emerges either from a parent broaching the topic with their child, or from the children themselves asking questions. Our responses as parents can be difficult, and must be tailored to our own children’s ages and level of understanding, and our own personal beliefs, but the following tips can be useful:
1. Be willing to answer your child’s questions: The fundamental reason children ask questions about these events is to make sense out of the world around them. They are not only asking for information, but also struggling for some way of understanding an event that is difficult even for us as adults to comprehend. It is very important for parents to answer their children’s questions in an honest and straightforward manner, appropriate to the child’s age level, and not to avoid talking about the situation. A child’s questions will tell you how much information they are looking for, and what they can understand. While parents do not have to share in disturbing detail, it is important to share the facts, and not gloss over the incident with vague generalities. Children tend to fill in details and make up much worse pictures in their minds than the actual reality when their imaginations are left to fill in the details. Be honest with your child and present the facts simply and in a calm manner. Be there to listen to your child’s words, feelings and emotions. As you explain what happened using simple words, watch their reactions. If your child begins to fidget, get upset or start to look overwhelmed, move into holding them and reassuring them of their safety. Remember, your reactions and reassurance impacts how they process such difficult situations. You may not have all the answers, but you can still share what you truly believe in a way that is very comforting. For example, you can start by saying “Honey, I don’t know how to explain this to you, but yes, it’s terrible. You are safe now and there are a lot of good people working to make us safe. What are you feeling? What questions do you have?” It is important to reassure children that these events, though horrific, happen rarely, and how unusual it is for a person to face such a tragedy personally.
2. Watch for changes in your child’s behavior: During or after a tragic event, each child responds to trauma differently, but there are some common reactions to look for: trouble with sleeping or eating, difficulty concentrating or listening, defiance or an inability to trust adults or authorities, adverse reactions to certain people or groups of people. It is not unusual for a child to temporarily be more tearful or angry, or even to regress to earlier behaviors developmentally (thumb sucking, bed wetting, clinging more to the parent) as a way of coping with the emotional impact of a tragedy, but if you see these behaviors lasting longer than two weeks, signs of excessive fear or worry or a loss of interest in activities your child used to enjoy, these may be signs that your child could benefit from talking with a school counselor, minister or therapist. It is important when parents see such behaviors and signs in their children to reassure the child, provide hugs, patients and lots of safety and consistency. It is also important to help your child to verbalize their feelings, to draw pictures, write poems, do activities or use other verbal and nonverbal methods of processing their stress.
3. Be clear and specific when you talk with your child: When a horrific event occurs, parents understandably become anxious about how to communicate about such an event with their children. Children, on the other hand, may also be curious and want an explanation. If you do not speak to your child, they are still likely to hear information from the news, from other adults or from classmates. Too little information causes stress in a child, so a simple explanation of what has happened can provide much needed relief from anxiety. At the same time, too much information and vague explanations may increase a child’s anxiety, or create confusion and fear. Using overly general phrases (“a bad man hurt children in Connecticut,”) is less effective than very simple, clear specifics. “An emotionally sick young man shot children at a school in Connecticut. That man has died and cannot hurt you, or anyone else. This is very unusual, and has never happened at your school. You are safe, and I am here to protect you.”
If a child asks questions such as, “what happens to someone after they die?” answer as directly as you can, without confusing euphemisms, about what happens, according to your own beliefs. A parent can give an honest but a simple answer, such as, “When someone dies, they are usually very old or sick, but sometimes rare accidents happen. A person’s body stops working completely and they are no longer here with us every day physically, but their memory is still with us.” It is important not to use such phrases as, “They went to sleep,” or, “they got tired,” so that a child does not fear natural processes such as sleep. It is helpful to assure children that they are young and strong and healthy, and safe. This is an appropriate time for parents to share personal beliefs, “We believe that the person goes on to Heaven and lives on with God,” or, “No one knows for sure what happens after you die.” There are many books and resources about helping children understand death and process grief and loss.
4. Be honest: A heartwrenching reality like the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary affects everyone. Parents should be honest about their feelings, (“I am very sad about what happened, and a lot of people are sad, so they are praying, or trying to do important good things to help the people in Sandy Hook, and in memory of the people who died.” As you share your feelings in a healthy and calm manner, you model this strength for your children. Encourage your child to express their feelings too. As them what they might like to do to help, or in honor of those affected. Planting a tree, writing a poem or story, writing a letter to those affected, or doing something for others may be a way to help your child channel their feelings into a positive action. As I have said earlier, we sadly live in a broken and world in which unexpected tragedies can and do happen. As parents, we struggle to find ways to explain discuss the magnitude of such an atrocity in a simple way that our children can understand, while also reassuring them that they are safe, and there are many people working to keep them safe. It is important to help your child understand there are many more good people who do not commit such acts, and those people who do are rare, but do exist. It may help as you explain such events to your child, to also share stories of heroic acts and examples of human strength and courage in the face of such tragedies.
5. Limit your child’s media exposure: A repeated exposure to media coverage during tragic events may heighten anxiety in children. If the children are old enough to watch news coverage, it may be good to let them watch limited reports, but monitor your child for signs they may be becoming overwhelmed. If the person/group committing an atrocity is of a particular age, gender, race, or culture, it is important to assure your child that although this one person or group harmed someone, their actions do not reflect on all people belonging to that group. Explain facts about the events, and reports your child may see on the news or read about. Reassure them that these are acts of one individual, and that they need not feel afraid of every person who looks like the perpetrator. If you do allow your child to watch media coverage, it is very helpful to do so when you are present to answer questions and help them process their feelings. Limit the amount of time they are exposed to these news stories, and avoid keeping a constant news report of the incident playing while children are present. Intersperse their exposure to any news coverage with reassuring events, play, and normal comforting activities and events. Your emotional and physical presence with your child, and encouraging them to communicate with you is the most important factor in teaching your child to process painful and tragic events.