Dec 15, 2012
As much as we all want to protect our children from the harsh parts of life, talking to them about tragedies is part of modern existence. Our children are media consumers now in ways they never have been, so when a horrible incident like a school shooting occurs, you can expect that they will hear about it. Yesterday's shooting was thornier to talk about because so many children were killed. Here are some tips for talking to your children when bad things happen.
1. Ask first before you talk: Bring up something general about the new story to gauge how much your child may have heard. Don't assume they know the details or have much understanding. For example, "Have you been hearing anything in the news today that you want to talk about?"
2. Let your child describe his understanding of events: Even very smart children have a limited understanding of tragic events. For example, a child may think that just because a plane hit a building in New York that it is not safe to go up in skyscrapers. You can gently correct their misperceptions.
3. Less is more: Some parents, especially those with very bright or older children, feel the need to give more information than kids are ready for. Keep the information very limited, very concrete, and simple. Limit your child's exposure to the news so you can be in control of what they hear and see. News is often very sensational--running cycles of bodies and crying people. This is frightening and distressing for all of us. Turn off the tv for a while! Of course its best to tell the truth, but kids don' t need all the awful details. A simple statement like, "Two boys hurt a lot of people in a school yesterday" is better than "They shot other kids and teachers and people were screaming and trying to get out." Your goal is to help the child manage his anxiety, not feed it with troubling images.
4. Emphasize that your child is safe: Kids often believe that if something occurs once, they need to be afraid that it will happen to them. Remember that the odds are that your child will never be a victim of violence, in fact, the risk of getting into a car every day is greater than many of the scary things we imagine. Communicate explicitly to your child that he is safe, and that you are protecting him. Let your child know he is safe at school and that the adults are taking good care of him.
5. Turn fear and sadness into action: If a child is very bothered by tragic events, you can help him gain mastery over fear and anxiety by taking some positive action. I am not talking about letting her sleep in your bed again or stop going to school--I'm talking about doing something positive. Acts such as collecting warm clothes for Pakistani earthquake victims, trick or treat for Unicef, or helping to collect funds for Hurricane Sandy Relief or make a care package for Anysoldier.com are a good way to help kids feel more in control.
6. Consult a professional: If your child becomes preoccupied with fears, consult a professional. Most of the time children will go through a short phase of anxiety, but for some kids the anxiety starts to interfere with daily life. I once met a girl who watched her brother choke on some food (adults quickly helped him) and decided it was best to stop eating, and a teenager who began sleeping with her parents again during the DC Sniper attacks. Psychologists, counselors and social workers can help your child learn effective ways of coping with their anxieties.
7. Be honest. If your child asks why such things happen, its best to say that we don't really understand why. You can tell them that most people are good, and most would never hurt children, but that sometimes, very rarely, some people do bad things. It is fine to express your own sadness and anger, though best if you don't make it your child's responsibility to comfort you! Finally, Its ok to say you don't know why bad things happen, just pair it with a reassuring message that your child is safe.
Best wishes and love to all the families who lost their little ones. Hold your dear ones close everyone!