When tragedy and death strike as they have in recent news headlines, we adults often feel the need to protect our children, but that is impossible. With the age of technology and instant communications around the world through television, internet and social media, children can be witness to tragic and horrifying life events. Talking to children about death, trauma and tragedy is important.
As adult role models and caretakers of the children around us we are challenged in two ways when disaster or tragedy strike on either a personal or community wide level. First we have to process our own feelings of grief and distress, and then we need to help our children do the same.
As a parent, guardian, teacher or caregiver to children, you can’t shield children from traumatic events or grief, but you can help them express their feelings, comfort them, and help them feel safer. This is important to remember: By allowing and encouraging them to express their feelings, you can help children build healthy coping skills that will serve them well in the future, and to instill in themselves confidence that they can overcome adversity when it happens.
1. Be there to break the news or explain what happened to the children if possible.
When a tragic event happens that will get wide coverage, don’t delay telling your children about what’s happened: It’s much better for the child if someone they know and feel safe with is the one who tells them the bad news. It would be better if the news comes from you or another safe person in the child’s life rather than from some other child, a television news report, or the headlines on the front page of your newspaper. The event may be less shocking or traumatic if you or another safe adult in the child’s life is able to convey the facts, however painful, and set the emotional tone.
2. Watch the child’s reactions and follow their lead.
Ask the child to tell you anything that they may have heard about the tragic event, and then ask how they are feeling about the news. Allow the child the emotional time and space to process what has happened and the opportunity to ask questions. You want to be prepared to answer the specific questions they have about the upsetting details. Do not give them information that they don’t ask for that may be unnecessary for them to know or particularly upsetting. Don’t prompt them with questions you think they might have. Your goal in answering their questions is to give them enough honest information about the event to avoid encouraging frightening fantasies. Don’t lie about the facts, but don’t scare the child either. If the child appears unable to handle the news at the time, step back from the situation and try again later. If the news strongly affects the child, don’t be afraid to ask for help and support from reliable, competent, trained professionals.
3. Be calm and set the emotional tone of the conversation.
It is fine to express your emotional responses to the tragic event. (Sometimes it may be necessary for you to express your overwhelming emotional responses with other adults, and talk to the children after you have had time to calm down and compose yourself.)
If you talk to the child about a traumatic experience in a highly emotional way, then he or she will likely react in a similar highly emotional way without fully comprehending what has happened. If you remain as calm as possible, the child will feel secure in listening to what is important in your message to them. If they sense you have “lost control”, they may be more traumatized by the news. Remember children in traumatic situations need to feel secure and safe. They will not feel safe or secure if you or other adults who they look up to are extremely emotional.
4. Give the children assurance and a feeling that they are still safe and cared for.
Talking about a tragic accident, an act of violence or a death is especially tough because of how egocentric children are: most likely they will focus in on if something similar could happen to them or people that they care for. Therefore, it is important to reassure your child about how unusual this kind of event is. Also explain to them the measures or safeguards that have been taken to prevent this kind of thing from happening to them. Also assure them that this kind of event is investigated by authorities carefully, to identify causes and help prevent it from happening again. Answer questions they ask, and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know the answers if you don’t.
5. Give them permission to talk about their thoughts or emotions.
In all your discussions about the tragic event, you can suggest ways your child might remember those who have been affected or killed by the events. Letting them draw pictures or tell stories about the event or loved ones lost to death allows them to deal with often scary emotions and thoughts. If you’re religious, going to church and your faith community could be extremely reassuring to the child. Always let the child know that they can feel safe to talk with you about anything they need to concerning the event. Also avoid trying to tell the child how they should feel or respond to the event. Let them tell you how they feel and respond without judging them.
6. Explain the event to children in language they can understand.
Don’t volunteer too much information which can be overwhelming. Do your best to answer honestly and clearly in language appropriate for their developmental stage. Difficult conversations like this won’t be over in one session. You can expect children to return to the topic as many times as they personally need to in order to come to terms with this experience.
7. Make yourself available and listen.
If your child is upset, just spending time with him or her will most likely make them feel safer. Children find great comfort in schedules and routines. Involve the whole family in doing ordinary things together, and that may be the most effective way to help your child heal from the trauma.
8. Remember those who die in tragic events on a regular basis.
Help to evoke memories of the people who die by drawing pictures, sharing stories, or with rituals like releasing balloons or lighting candles. Those times of remembering can all be good, positive ways to help provide healing time for a child. Remind the child that a person continues to live in our memories and in our hearts. Another form of remembering the person lost comes when reaching out to help others in need: it can be therapeutic and help children not only feel good about themselves but learn a very healthy way to respond to trauma and grief.
Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise.” Larry is the director of GriefWorks.