Working Through Tragedy (UPDATE!)
When, how, and even if to talk to children about tragedy are hard questions to answer. A variety of things should be considered before broaching the subject. It is particularly troublesome when the victims of tragedy are of an age that it would otherwise be inappropriate to discuss such a tragedy with, as is the case for today’s shooting in Connecticut. But here is some advise, with the caveat that I am an experienced educator with a bachelors and masters in education but am NOT a trained therapist of any kind.
1.) When deciding if you will broach a topic with your child, consider the likelihood that they will find out otherwise. You may prefer that your child remain blissfully ignorant to certain realities of the world until they are older (and this is sometimes the recommended tack) but this is not always possible. As such, if you think it likely that they will be exposed to the information, you might want to stay out in front and make sure they are introduced to it on the terms you prefer.
2.) Specifically when discussing death, consider children’s conception of such. Children younger than the victims of this tragedy often don’t understand the permanence of death; it is why young children often seem unfazed, as they assume that things that are dead are only temporarily so.
3.) Recognize the difference between what children are asking and what answers they are actually seeking. These are often starkly different. Young children are highly egocentric. For instance, when they fret over the potential death of a parent, it is rarely for the parent’s sake. They may ask, “What if Mommy dies?” What they are really wondering is, “What will happen to me if you die?” In this case, many of children’s questions will all be seeking the answer to a single question: Will or can this happen to me? The troubling thing that this tragedy exposes is we can never definitively say, “No.” And while a bit of perspective will remind us that the likelihood of being a victim of such a tragedy is remarkably low, that is beyond the conceptual understanding of a child. As such, assure your child(ren) that you and the other adults in their life are dedicated to their safety and security. Let them know that no matter what happens, you will do all that you can to ensure they are loved and cared for. As I say to children who demonstrate undue anxiety or fear, “It’s my job to keep you safe. It’s your job to play and be a kid. Let’s both get to work.”
4.) Be mindful of what you are modeling for them. You might be verbally reassuring them but if you are a nervous wreck (an understandable state to be in), most children are astute enough to pick up on that, thereby compromising your words. It is okay to let your child know that you too are saddened or sad or upset or angry or afraid at the news, but model for them how you will manage these emotions and maintain the appropriate perspective to resume living your life.
5.) Should you decide to take additional steps to safeguard your children, be mindful of what you are communicating to them. Children who grow up behind barred windows and electric fingers learn that the world is a scary place full of people they cannot trust. Do not be naive; take the steps you think are necessary. But whenever possible, do them discretely and let your children know that despite your steps to ensure safety, the world is full of people they can known and trust and love.
This list is incomplete. I will likely add to it as I think of more. I can hopefully back much of this up with additional resources but wanted to put something up in the meantime since school is getting out and children are coming home. I was fortunate enough to hug my 13 little angels on their way out the door today and look forward to doing so for the next 100+ school days, a treat I am confident I will enjoy every day that I remain a teacher.
A few more things to think about…
6.) Don’t lie. Don’t ever lie. Withhold the truth if you think it right (and it often is) but do not set them up for disappointment. Do not tell them nothing bad will ever happen to them. Do not tell them you will never die. Those things will happen. And you don’t want them compounding their grief with, “Why did mommy/daddy lie to me about this?”
7.) Less is often more when it comes to information. Do your best to control the flow of information. Kids don’t need to know every grizzly detail, even if they seem to want it. You will often only be giving them more ammo for fear and anxiety.