Talking to Our Children About Tragedy: Fostering Safety, Not Fear

When tragedy strikes, our hearts are broken and we grieve for the families who are reeling from loss. Though we find ourselves overwhelmed with emotion and feeling ill-equipped to process these incomprehensible events ourselves, let alone convey them to our children, we, as parents are in a unique position to guide our children in dark moments to a place of resilience and safety rather than to a place of fear.

We may, in our own distress and sense of helplessness, feel like we can regain control by telling our children exactly what occurred and making sure they know what to do if the unthinkable happened and they were faced with an attack. Feeling that somehow warning them would prepare them. But there is a time and place for everything. This is not their job, nor should it be our priority. Certainly not now. In fact, our urgency to explain everything– to quell our own fears– will be confusing to children. They will be overloaded with information which will add to their stress. Resist that urge. Fear doesn’t make us feel safer. 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.

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 that violence is the norm lurking around every corner, 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 the terrible events which occurred.

Here are several ideas to guide you in talking about Friday’s school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut; these suggestions can be useful in general when helping your child through traumatic events.

Turn off the news
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.

Don’t give details
Children don’t need to know details. Unless they ask, this is not important information. They need to have a narrative to understand the basics of what occurred. Emphasize that many people are working to make sure that doesn’t happen again, and that it is over.

Start with what your child already knows
Ask your child what they’ve heard of what happened. Young children do not need to know unless they will be exposed to the information at church or synagogue or some other venue. 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.

Here is a sample script: A very sad thing happened in a town in Connecticut on Friday. A man who was very disturbed and had a lot of problems came to a school and shot people; 28 people died. This was very wrong. Immediately, police and ambulances came to keep people safe and take care of people who were hurt. The shooting stopped. The families are very sad. Many, many people who care and love them are helping to take care of them. Schools are very safe places. This is very rare, which means it is extremely unlikely to ever happen. Your teachers and principals work hard to keep you safe at school. That is their job and they work very hard to do that.

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.

Maintain your routines
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. This lets them know that the tragedy, though it is being processed, is over and it’s not still going on.

Restore a sense of safety
This is not a time to teach about what to do if an emergency occurred. Children are feeling vulnerable either from grasping what occurred during the 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, the mayor of their town, the president, their teachers and school personnel.

Stay calm
Children are likely to see parents upset during this time, and crying and feeling sad are all normal, expected and healthy reactions to a tragedy. 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. Mom won’t always feel this way, but this is how Mom feels right now.” 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 and may even make children feel that they are somehow responsible for making you sad or angry.

Give support and spend time with your children
While this is an extremely emotional time for parents identifying with and grieving for the parents who have lost their children, or families who have lost loved ones, spending time with your children will help you and your children to feel connected and safe.

Expect a range of reactions
Children may cry when they hear the 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.

When to seek help
If after a week or two children continue to be having difficulties, and their anxiety and fears have intensified over that time rather than faded and resolved, consult your pediatrician for advice.

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 parents, as educators, as those who care about the future for our children– we must focus on what brings us together and with our conviction hold tight and work toward the possibility that things can be better for all.

Copyright Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety (DaCapo, 2012).

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