With recent events like the Sandy Hook massacre, the Boston Marathon bombing and even the Oklahoma tornado flooding our news, it is often hard for us to understand these tragedies, much less explain them to our kids. It becomes especially difficult when other children are involved in horrific events like the tornado that hit Plaza Towers and Briarwood Elementary Schools in Texas. Our initial instincts urge us to shield our children from the pain and guard their safety. But what happens when those little eyes catch a glimpse of the television screen or older kids at school chat about the events? How much do we share, if anything, and what exactly is the best way to introduce children to the sometimes painful real world without destroying their youthful innocence?
Helping a child deal with tragedy will differ depending on the child’s unique developmental stage and level of understanding. Some kids may have a seemingly endless list of questions, while others may not want to discuss it at all. Some might pick up on the feelings of mourning around them, while others remain oblivious. Either way, parents are experts when it comes to knowing their children, including what information they can handle and how best to explain it.
Bela Sood, MD, policy director for CHoR’s Virginia Treatment Center for Children, is a leader when it comes to helping children face disasters. She played a key role on the review panel following the Virginia Tech massacre and has the following 5 tips to help you talk to and protect your children during tragedies:
As a society, we have become glued to social and mainstream media, especially during tragic events. We carefully watch as the events unfold, grasping for the next breaking bit of information. Many of us have become numb to the images and often forget how traumatizing these visuals can be for children. Limit the amount of exposure your kids have to media coverage of a tragic event, and limit your own exposure as well to reduce effects of the event.
Watch and listen
If you notice changes in behaviors like sleeping patterns or eating habits, or if a child becomes particularly preoccupied with negative news or withdraws from activities they used to love, there’s a good chance something’s on their mind. Let them ask questions and share their feelings. Be open to those conversations and willing to lend an ear. If anxiety starts to affect a child’s daily routine, school work or ability to have fun, it is a good idea to seek professional help and speak with your pediatrician.
Make sure you are open and honest with your children without oversharing. You can usually wait for them to bring it up, so as not to alarm them, but if you feel it is necessary to approach the topic, do so in a calm and reassuring way. Acknowledge the situation without spending too much time on it. Don’t act as though nothing happened or negate the impact, but explain things to them in words they understand.
When children are exposed to violence or tragedy, they often begin to think it could happen to them. Acknowledge that sometimes bad things happen but reassure them that what occurred is very unusual and is unlikely to happen to them. Emphasize the safety of the world, your community and your family, and remind them they are safe and loved.
Life goes on
It is important to address these events, but it’s also important to continue life and normal routines. While it may be difficult, your children can pick up cues from your emotional state, so try to curb your anxiety and stay positive.
Unfortunately, we can’t shield our children from the tragedies of the world, but we can help them understand these events and remind them they are loved and protected. If you notice your child has been affected by a tragedy, speak to your pediatrician for further advice and expert guidance.