How to Talk to Your Kids about Tragedy
Today, Dr. Amador is sharing some very important and serious information about how we should talk to our children about tragedies, like the one at Newtown Elementry. Read his words and let me know how you can apply his advice within your family. Xo B
By Saturday afternoon, the day after the horrific shootings at Newtown Elementary School, my children hadn’t asked me any questions about what happened. I knew that by Monday, whether their school chose to address what happened or not, they would hear about it from their classmates. So I asked if they heard “what happened to those children?” Both immediately said yes (one is in 3rd grade the other in 8th). Did they have any questions? They had only a few, but I heard the anxiety in the tone of the questions my youngest asked. I focused on two things first: The chance of this happening to anyone is lower than being killed by a lightening strike (Look it up, it’s true)—you’re safe, your school, friends and family are all safe from being hurt in this way.
How to Talk to Your Kids About the Tragedy
Most harm occurs long after the event. For some time to come our children will need our help to keep them safe psychologically and emotionally from the aftermath of that tragic day. The natural fears, depression and doubts that arise from incidents like this will not necessarily surface in obvious ways. And how we adults respond to them can make a big difference for our children—so I am sharing some lessons I’ve learned from previous school shootings and my clinical practice (I suggest you follow some of the advice I give below for yourself as well for your child):
- If your child or children haven’t asked, don’t push but do ask if they heard about it (trust me they now know about it if they go to school, use the internet or watch TV).
- Usually, not always, your child will let you know when he or she’s ready to talk.
- If they mention it, ask what they know about what happened and if they have any questions.
- What should you say? If you’re scared this is likely to happen to your child—please get a grip! Don’t say anything yet…
- Wait to talk until you have dealt with your more irrational (though understandable) fears. Round the clock news coverage of an exceedingly rare event doesn’t mean the thing happens every day! Check my math about being killed by lightening. Do you arm your kids with portable lightening rods? (If you’re old enough, you remember the around the clock coverage of Princess Diana’s death and more recent anniversary media blitz coverage of that tragic car wreck in Paris. And yet, despite so much news, how many popular princesses have been killed in car accidents in the last twenty years? See my point now?)
- Now that you are calmer yourself, answer your child’s questions simply, honestly, and directly (using age-appropriate language of course). Focus on safety and acknowledge the sadness they might be feeling. It’s not only scary, but also very sad.
Even though the media coverage has slowed down a lot, when the stories appear turn off the TV, radio, and monitor web use to limit media exposure. Research shows that children who are exposed to significant amounts of media coverage are much more likely to suffer from traumatic stress symptoms. Seeing and hearing ongoing coverage is repetitively traumatic and harmful.
Look for Warning Signs
Some kids simply won’t talk about it. They will express their reactions differently. Be on the look out for anxiety or distress. In younger children you will see separation anxiety, disruptive behavior, sleeping difficulties, renewed bed-wetting and/or increased tantrums, more crying, etc. You may hear about more stomachaches, headaches and requests to stay home from school. Older kids may exhibit increased moodiness or irritability.
These warning signs can crop up months afterwards. What triggers these reactions isn’t the shooting itself—it’s what’s going on between your child’s ears and in his or her heart: thinking about it, worrying, having fleeting feelings that school is not safe.
If you see these warning signs, don’t be afraid to ask questions like:
- Have you been thinking about what happened at that school in Connecticut?
- Do you feel safe at school?
- Do you ever wonder about dying?
Children are blessed with colorful imaginations that also can run wild creating terrifying scenarios. Just because they are not talking about it doesn’t mean they are not thinking about it and having horrific fantasies about what could happen to them and their loved ones. The stakes are high. Months and years of never having talked about the fears that may be taking root will cause unnecessary pain, fear and even symptoms of stress and post traumatic stress disorder (and depression). By uprooting those fearful thoughts, weeding the psychological garden of your child’s growing mind, you can give him a more balanced personal understanding of what the Newtown tragedy means. It’s a time for compassion, sadness, coming together, and conversation.
Don’t shove conversations down your child’s throat, but instead listen to what they say and what they are not saying—listen and look for the warning signs above. Validate your child’s feelings “I can see why you feel so scared” while gently and repeatedly reassuring them “You’re safe, our family is safe and so are your friends and teachers. We are all working very hard to make sure we stay safe.”
One final thing: help your child mourn the dead. Many children are empathizing with the children who were killed and with their families. If you say prayers as a family, be sure to include those children in your prayers together. If your child is still sad, suggest writing a letter together to the parents and siblings of one of the children who died. And be sure to put something positive about that child’s life in the letter.
Have you talked to your kids about what happened at Newtown Elementary?