We talk a lot about death in our family. I guess that goes with the territory of losing a child. But not in a morbid way. In a way that lets my children know it’s okay to talk about death, dying, grief. They are not afraid to ask questions, and they have a general understanding of what it means for someone to get sick and go away for ever. And they know, that while it is sad, it happens. It’s important to be able to have an open discussion about tragedy with children.
With all of the tragedies and sadness we are faced with in our world, I think it’s important that parents understand how to talk to their children about grief, loss, tragedy, and also how to help them cope with these issues.
I am not a psychiatrist, but I did some research, and I know quite a bit about living with sadness and depression. But I would advise, if your child has been personally involved in a traumatic event, please reach out for medical help. Counseling can be very helpful.
How to have an open discussion with children about tragedy
After a tragic event, your child may be stressed, scared, shocked, even angry, grieved or anxious. You might be nervous about talking to your children about a tragedy, such as a natural disaster, mass shooting, or other large scale event, but it’s important to help them understand what has happened, feel safe again, and learn how to cope. Media is present just about everywhere, and there is a good chance your child will hear about bad events. Children will have questions and may even be scared about going through their daily routine.
You can start a conversation with your child to help answer their questions and calm their fears by choosing a time of day when they are most willing to talk, like right before bedtime. Ask the child what they already know about the situation and find out if they have any particular questions. Make sure you point out any misconceptions or misinformation the child might have. Tell the basic truths about the event, but you don’t have to divulge unnecessary details. Instead, focus your efforts on reassuring the child.
Obviously your child’s age will play a big factor in how they process the information.
The American Psychological Association and the National Association of School Psychologists offer these insights:
Preschool children will likely mimic your emotions and may become clingier or revert to behaviors such as bedwetting and thumb sucking. Do not chastise them for them for this behavior, instead, get down to the child’s eye level, speak calmly and gently and use words they understand. Make sure they understand they are protected.
Elementary and early middle school children will likely have more questions and may be afraid of going to school. They may have nightmares, other problems sleeping, and may act aggressively. Help them separate fantasy from reality.
Upper middle school and high school children may develop very strong opinions about the causes and want to be part of a solution to prevent a future tragedy. They will likely want to help in the aftermath. They may also have trouble sleeping or have other physical aches and pains. They may act out against authority or deny they are upset.
All of these reactions are normal for about two weeks to a month, but if it extends beyond this, it’s a sign your child needs help coping with the situation, particularly if they have had a previous traumatic incident.
The Mayo Clinic recommends the following tips to help your child cope:
- Help the child process the event but remain calm and try not to show intense emotions in front of them. The children follow your cues on how to react.
- Make sure the child is reassured of their safety. Consider creating or reviewing your family’s crisis response plan.
- Turn the TV and media off. While older children (and adults) will likely want to watch coverage and understand the events, watching for extended periods of time may heighten anxiety.
- Keep your routine in place as much as possible. This will help the child feel a sense of normalcy.
- Avoid placing blame. If it’s an event carried out by human violence, steer away from blaming a culture or ethnic group.
- Spend extra time together to help the child feel more secure, and encourage them to express their feelings.
- Take advantage of school resources, such as the school counselor.
- Help those affected. How can you help the victims or those responding?
- Finally, remember to take care of yourself as well. You also need to eat enough, sleep enough, and even consider talking to a counselor.
Here are some resources that can be useful to you:
A national tragedy: Helping children cope. National Association of School Psychologists. http://www.nasponline.org/resources/crisis_safety/terror_general.aspx.
Helping your children manage distress in the aftermath of a shooting. American Psychological Association.http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/aftermath.aspx.
Tips for parents and caregivers on media coverage of traumatic events. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.http://www.nctsn.org/resources/audiences/parents-caregivers#q10.