Talking To Children About Tragedies

Ann Brown

By: Ann Brown

children

Sadly, once again, we have been faced with terrible and frightening incidents in the news. The bombings in Boston came has a huge shock to all of us and many parents learned about it, or had to process it, in front of their children.
It can be difficult and confusing to navigate how, when and if to tell our children about the scary things that can happen around them. There is no one formula for this, of course, but there are some foundational and philosophical guidelines that can help.
Young children need to know, first and foremost, that the world is a good and safe place. They need to have that bottom layer be built of trust, security and predictability. When our kids are babies, that’s pretty easy. When they are preschoolers and older, it gets trickier because they are exposed – inadvertently, at times – to the realities of life. We can find ourselves in the position of having to explain the inexplicable to our children: that bad things happen.
It’s my opinion that we do not need to discuss terrible current events with children. This, of course, is different from how to respond when personal tragedies happen in a child’s life – for example, if a child says to me, “my dog died” or, “my grandma is very sick and is going to die soon,” I express compassion and validate how that might feel. If other children want to participate in the conversation, I carefully allow a conversation that focuses on validation and appropriate emotional literacy.
If your child had heard about what happened in Boston, there are ways to help him/her process it.
Endeavor to answer only the question asked. When a child asks us a question for which we were not prepared, we can fall into the habit of giving them the entire story. This is rarely what the child is asking, or what s/he needs to hear. For example, if you child asks, “what happened in Boston?” You can say, “there was an accident” (to a young child) or “people got hurt during the Marathon” (to an older child). Then wait. Sometimes that is all the answer your child needs because s/he had heard buzz words about it and wanted to know what it was all about.
Stress the idea that people were there to help. If your child has heard enough about it to ask specific questions, be sure that you include in every statement something about the fact that this is why we have police officers and fire fighters – to help us when there is trouble. You can also add that many people came to help who were not necessarily official first responders. It is comforting to children to know that when there is a problem, there are people who know what to do about it. In the same way we tell them that if they get sick, doctors know what to do or if there is a fire, firefighters will come, we need to reassure them that they are not on their own in a disaster.
Do something constructive with the fear. If your child has heard about the bombings (or the fire in Texas, or any of the many tragedies…) suggest doing something that helps the victims, like sending care packages or drawing pictures to send them. It is amazing how therapeutic it can be to take our own fear and sadness and help someone else.
And finally, be vigilant about keeping media away from your young children. Having the news on TV or the radio while your children are playing nearby can affect them. Kids pick up on ambient sounds, on seemingly mindless noise, and definitely on our reactions to something we see or hear on the news. They don’t always come to us for explanations so we often have no idea they are grappling with something unfathomable to them.
As children grow older, they will be exposed to more scary and difficult realities in life. With a strong foundation that the world is good and safe, they will more easily be able to handle the unfortunate exceptions.

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