Vail Valley Voices: How best to discuss tragedy with kids
Ryan Summerlin December 16, 2012
In light of the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, many parents are struggling with how to explain what happened to their children. Here are some suggestions.
First of all, turn off the news when your kids are around. Young children are not equipped to make sense of the ongoing news coverage of tragedies like this one.
In fact, if you are having trouble coping with something you see on the news, you can be sure your children will have trouble with it, too.
Toddlers and preschoolers will rarely comprehend what has happened, so it’s usually best to only discuss traumatic events if your child spontaneously brings them up.
Tragic events that don’t directly touch their lives are unlikely to affect them very much. However, their emotional radar is very sensitive, so they may pick up on your sadness, grief and horror.
If you are feeling emotional, don’t just brush it off. Explain that you are feeling sad but you will be OK. Accept a comforting hug, the loan of a favorite stuffed toy or cup of water offered by your child and let them know they are helping you to feel better.
When discussing traumatic events with school-aged children, consider your child’s developmental level. Your child will usually give you clues about how much they can handle. Listen carefully to what your child has to say.
Don’t hurry the conversation. Maintain good eye contact and use hugs and other kinds of comforting touch. Answer their questions gently, but be honest and direct.
Allow your child to talk out their worries and concerns and provide responses that will help your child feel safe, secure and taken care of. Avoid making promises that you can’t keep, but be as reassuring as you can.
Listen to your child and validate their feelings. Ask if there is anything they would like to do to help the people where the shootings occurred. You and your child can draw and mail condolence cards, send money or toys, or light a candle and say a prayer.
Children have very generous hearts and helping them help others can be a particularly beautiful way for them to cope with tragedy and help themselves, as well.
Your child may regress. Children may start wetting the bed or having nightmares. Handle these occurrences calmly and provide support and comfort. Encourage the use of transitional objects such as blankets or stuffed toys if they help the child feel safe and secure.
Older kids and teens may raise some very difficult questions. If you don’t know how to answer a question, it’s OK to admit it. Moral, spiritual and faith-based discussions can be very helpful and comforting. If you are unsure how to handle a situation, have the child talk to a counselor or religious leader about their concerns.
You can still be a loving caring parent without having all the answers! You aren’t required to know how to handle all situations, but you are responsible for finding the resources your child needs when you aren’t sure what to do.
To effectively address your child’s fears and worries, have a discussion about how they can respond if something bad happens or if they find themselves in a dangerous situation.
Be practical and realistic. We all want to raise children who make good decisions and know how to stay calm and handle adversity well.
Bring the focus back to the positive aspects of family, community, comfort, caring and faith. Draw the child’s attention to all the heroes of the day.
Teens may be interested in participating in political or community action to help prevent future re-occurrences of similar events. Artistic or written self-expression and music can help your child process the experience and the deep feelings it may have evoked.
Religious services, vigils, memorials and community ceremonies can be very comforting so participation should be encouraged if the child wishes.
Helping your child cope with trauma may take time. Your child is unlikely to process everything you tell them the first time they hear it. Provide comfort and have confidence that things will get better. Most children are resilient.
With love and caring support, they will be fine.
Jill Squyres, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist with a practice based in Eagle.