When tragedy strikes, our hearts are broken and we grieve for everyone whose life has been irrevocably shattered and is reeling from loss. Though we may find ourselves overwhelmed with emotion and feeling ill-equipped to process incomprehensible events ourselves, let alone convey them to our children, we, as parents, are in a unique position to guide our children through devastating and dark moments to a place of safety and security rather than to a place of fear or feeling alone. By our example we show our children that it is possible to have a sense of safety and faith in a world even amidst tragedy. Left to their own devices, children can feel despair and hopelessness
In times of crisis, we may, in our own distress and sense of helplessness, feel like we come to our children empty-handed, because we can’t prevent tragedies and crises from happening that we can’t comfort them. But, there is something else we can do. We, uniquely, can frame and process these devastating events in a way that supports our children’s sense of safety and understanding of the world.
Here are several ideas to keep in mind when helping your child through traumatic events.
Situations are urgent, explanations are not necessarily
for sure, but there isn’t urgency to explain events to our children. In fact, our sense of urgency may be confusing to children. Inadvertently, they may feel overloaded with information which will add to their stress. Though it may sound obvious: Fear doesn’t make us feel safer. It’s important to trust yourself to take your time and decide how you want to talk to your child. First and foremost, our priority is to help our children feel loved and safe, to spend time with them, be aware and attentive to their needs and keep their lives and routines as regular as possible.
Start with what your child already knows, be concrete, not complete
Ask your child what they’ve heard of what happened. What they know, what they think about it, what they want to know. Young children do not need to know unless they will be exposed to the information through friends or at school.
The following script can be used for children in middle school. High school students will likely have more questions. Listen to their questions, ask for their input and share yours at a level appropriate for your child. Children don’t need to know details. Unless they ask, it’s not important information. They need to have a narrative to understand the essence of what has occurred. Focus on all the levels of protection, the people who are working to make sure that tragedies don’t happen again.
Here is a sample script (adjust for details): A very sad thing happened when (event), some people died and got hurt. This was very wrong. No one should suffer. Immediately, helpers rushed in; police and ambulances came to keep people safe and take care of people who were hurt. The families are very sad. I am sad too. Many, many people who care and love them are helping to take care of them. People around the world want a safe world for everyone and are working hard every day to make sure that events like these never happen again. You can ask me anything about what happened, and we can think about things we can do to help. We will get through this together.
Consider your purpose
We all want to protect our children. Although we can’t always protect them from the fact that bad things do happen, we can protect them from feeling more vulnerable and scared because of our explanations. Our explanations should let children know that hard and bad things happen sometimes, but they are very rare, that billions of other people don’t want those things to happen, just like them, and that there are thousands of people whose job is to keep children safe. These people work to prevent things from happening. Very rarely bad things do happen, and that is very sad.
Tend to your own need for calm, first
Children are likely to see parents upset during times of crisis, and crying and feeling sad are all normal, expected and healthy reactions to a tragedy or crisis. As much as possible, parents will do best to find private spaces to express and get support for your raw emotion. But it’s also the case that children will pick up on our emotions and be concerned without an explanation for why this is happening. Children, especially anxious children, may even think it’s their fault that you are upset (Mom is mad at me!) and their responsibility to fix it. You can explain this to your child: “Mom is very sad right now, because this was a very sad thing that happened. Mom is OK. I won’t always feel this way, but this is how I feel right now and I’m taking care of myself.” It is very important in the presence of children to avoid angry outbursts and tirades against people you believe are responsible; this will be confusing for children and contribute to a sense of uneasiness and instability.
The world is still filled with caring, good people, even when tragedies occur
When talking with our children about tragedy, we can choose to emphasize grief and healing rather than fear and danger. Our purpose is to help our children recover and be resilient, not to be frightened of their lives. Though our emotions may make us feel angry and scared as if violence is the norm, we know in our heads and our hearts that billions of people want a safe, peaceful world and that we are joined together in grieving for terrible events which occur.
Turn off the news, limit social media
Parents are the best source of news for their children. News programs are not geared for children and repeated exposure to distressing information or images can be confusing and, in some cases, traumatizing to children when they believe that with each repetition they see, the event is recurring. Social media similarly should be curbed in times of crisis, given unreliable information and disturbing images which will be difficult for anyone to process. Offer to look at reliable news sources with your older children if they are interested.
Maintain your routines, but be flexible too
When a tragedy occurs, the routines such as regular meals and bedtimes may get compromised. Change is stressful; routine is organizing. Routines signal to children that the adults are in charge, and that normalcy prevails. Flexibility is important within structure, if your child is up late upset and needs to go into school later, or needs an extension on work, this is the time for those small accommodations to keep your child’s stress level most manageable.
Restore a sense of safety
Children are feeling vulnerable either from grasping what occurred during tragic events, or even just from seeing the adults upset. The priority now is to tell children that they are safe, help them to picture the layers and layers of adults whose job it is to keep them safe: their parents, their teachers, government officials, the President, world leaders, etc.
Expect a range of reactions
Children may cry when they hear upsetting news, they may be angry or they may have little reaction. All of these are normal. Children may be more clingy, need more hugs and support at bedtime. All of this is normal. Help children name what they are feeling and know that we can have many different feelings at the same time and that’s normal. We can feel sad and angry and like we don’t want to think about what’s happening. Let them know that it’s safe to come to you with their feelings whatever they may be.
Spend time with your children, keep their social routines going
Spending time with your children will help you and your children feel connected and safe. If that is hard to do because of your emotional state, think in small doses—find a soothing activity for all that doesn’t take too much energy for you—like watching a favorite family movie.
Remember, even in distressing times, children need to play and have fun when possible. Though it may feel out of synch, understand that especially when they are feeling upset, connecting with friends helps them to reset the nervous system and feel like themselves. This goes for adults too.
Find ways to help
Whether writing cards to those grieving, or collecting supplies for food banks, we can help our children take action to contribute to the world they want to see—one where we take care of each other.
When to seek help
If weeks after the event your child is continuing to show signs of behavioral difficulties (e.g., outbursts, sleep disturbances, difficulty eating, socializing), and their anxiety and fears have intensified over that time rather than faded and resolved, consult your pediatrician for guidance.
Though we can’t shield our children from the realities of life, we can greatly impact how our children are exposed to them, what they learn from them, and how they live with them. These are the parental privileges and responsibilities that we can exercise even in difficult times. Our goal is to prevent our children from becoming afraid or angry or feeling like the world is a chaotic place; it is to show them that there is light even in the narrow places that we are thrust in from tragedies. We can know that while there are many issues which may divide us– as those who care about the future for our children– we must focus on what brings us together and with our conviction hold tight to the vision and work toward the reality that things can be better for all.
©2023 Tamar E. Chansky, Ph.D.