It is not uncommon to have deep emotional reactions when a tragic event happens in our community. Often times we are hurting as we try to make sense of, process, and cope with what has taken place. It is important that we take time and care for ourselves.
When such tragedy and atrocity strike, one of the first questions that tends to arise is “how can parents talk to their children about what happened, and should parents talk with their children about it?”
These are not easy decisions or conversations. While most of us would like to shield children from ever knowing that such horror exists. We encourage parents to thoughtfully consider these conversations, knowing their own children best, while bearing in mind that children often know and pick up more than we think. Children may learn about what happened at school, from peers, on social media, television or by overhearing adults talking. They may be left with questions or worries and conversations can alleviate anxiety they might be feeling.
- This horrific event has deeply affected adults. Before talking to your child, find ways to get help and comfort for yourself. Make sure you are talking to the child in order to help your child and not as a way to try to process and make sense of this tragedy for yourself, as adults often need to do.
- Do not assume that your child is feeling what you are feeling. It’s ok if they are worried or sad, but it’s also ok if they are not. This may be different depending on your children’s developmental levels, personalities and life experiences. Inquire and listen about their experience and reactions.
- Find an appropriate time to talk: When talking to your child, choose a place where you can talk without being interrupted. Choose a time when the conversation is not rushed, and the child feels they can be listened to and have questions answered.
- Create the opportunity/invitation to talk. Be patient; children and youth do not always talk about their feelings readily. Watch for clues that they may want to talk.
- Listen: Let your child take the lead. As children tell you what they know or ask questions, give them the space to talk without interruption.
- Keep it simple: Children do not need to know most of the details about the traumatic event and we do not want to scare them further with facts that are too much for them to handle.
- Have the conversation be developmentally appropriate: Young children need brief, simple information balanced with reassurances. Older children will be more vocal about their questions and may need more information about efforts to keep them and their community safe. Teenagers may want to discuss opinions about the causes of violence and may need to and want to have discussions about this.
- Be honest: While children do not need all of the facts, it is important to tell them the truth. Don’t pretend that the event has not occurred or that it is not serious. Children are smart, and they may be more worried if they think you are too afraid to tell them what is happening. Do not make promises that you cannot keep but do assure them what do you have control over.
- Give permission for many different feelings: Explain that all feelings are okay when something scary like this happens. Let children talk about their feelings and help put them into perspective. Younger children may not be able to express their feelings with words but rather through their body states where they feel something.
- Share your feelings: It is okay and important for children to know that the adults in their lives have similar feelings when bad things happen. It is important however that you remain in control and monitor your own emotions and tone of voice. If you’re finding it difficult to manage your reactions, you may want to enlist another adult to help you.
- Limit media exposure: It is important to limit the information gathered about the event as it can heighten children’s anxiety and fears. Allow breaks for yourself as well.
- Remind children that trustworthy and helpful people are in charge: It is important for children and adults to be reminded how many helpful people there are in the world, especially during a crisis.
As Mr. Rogers said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ’Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers- so many caring people in the world.”
Remember, too, that Jewish Family Service of MetroWest is here to help. If you or your child is having a hard time coping with a traumatic event, don’t struggle with it on your own. Licensed Clinicians who are experts in child development, anxiety and trauma can help to address your specific needs. We are just a phone call away, at (973) 765-9050.