Talking to your Child or Teen about Tragedy

Wishing that our children can be free of tragedy and sadness (Photo Credit: Teresa Sumerfield Photography)

It seems like more and more frequently, we find ourselves bombarded with media coverage about tragedies that occur randomly and unexpected.  School shootings.  Bus accidents.  Innocent children and youth dying. Acts of violence towards strangers.  Sometimes, watching the local news can be more terrifying than the movies and television shows we “responsibly” use our parental blocks to shield our children from the horrors of computer animation and gratuitous gore and bloodshed.

It is not surprising, then, that our young ones are becoming increasingly anxious about arbitrary and general and unspecific situations.  We may wonder why our sons and daughters are worried about practically everything and we may try to comfort them by telling them that they have nothing to worry about.  However, in my work with children and youth, although this interaction is, at best, full of positive intentions to support and help, it is often viewed as minimizing and insincere.  It can also send the message that these feelings are not okay or “normal”.

Sometimes, when we see our little ones display expressions of fear and panic, we try to assist them by avoiding situations altogether to alleviate their anxieties.  We find ourselves “walking on eggshells” and modifying our routines in order to maintain composure and calm.  But when tragedy strikes, such as a school shooting or other random acts of violence, removing them from school or refraining from leaving the house may not be an option.  When something horrific occurs, either near or far, how do we have these difficult and uncomfortable conversations with our children?  Or do we have these conversations at all?  Are we opening up a proverbial can of worms by introducing the topic into their highly influenced and impressionable minds?

Depending on the situation and the maturity level of your child, the answer should be “yes”.  Shying away from these discussions may strengthen the message that these situations are scary and horrific and should never be talked about or thought about.  We have to remember that our children’s anxieties (as well as our own) are fuelled by uncertainty and predictability.  In other words, we fear what we don’t know.  Providing appropriate opportunities to talk about these tragedies allows our young ones to build understanding, empathy, sympathy, and trust in their circle of support.

Talking to your child or teen about tragedy does not have to be a long discussion.  When talking about the school shooting in Florida, I told my 10 year son that sometimes guns fall into the hands of people who should not have them and therefore, many innocent people were hurt and some did not live.  We talked about how this tragedy must have scared the students and families.  We then talked about the importance of taking the lock and secure drills seriously when they are practiced in their schools every year.  I asked him if he felt scared at school and reassured him that this is not something that happens all the time.  Relatedly, I talked to my 6 year old son about the same tragedy, but this discussion was even more brief.  Someone got a hold of gun, which are only for responsible adults, and hurt people in his school.  We then reviewed the lock and secure drill as well and I reminded him of the importance of staying with his teacher, remaining quiet like a mouse and following instructions to keep safe in the event of an emergency.  I also reassured him that this will likely not happen at his school, but just like a seat belt, it is always important to be as safe as possible.  Some of you may wonder why I used the word “gun” in the first place.  My opinion is about this is that they already know what guns are and what they do.  This is not new information for them.  And, more importantly, it’s the truth.  Guns are dangerous.

It’s difficult for any parent to have this talk with their child.  But remember that if you do decide to have this discussion, you are telling your child that when he or she is confronted with a difficult and stressful situation, you are available to talk to them about it, regardless of how uncomfortable the topic.  So, if you are planning on doing so, here are a few things that I like to remember:

  1. If you don’t have the discussion with them, they are going to hear it from someone else, especially if it is highly publicized.  By having this discussion, you have some level of control over the information that they are given and the understanding or meaning that they are taking out of it.
  2. Keep it brief.  Allow them to ask their own questions, which they have likely already formulated in their heads and follow the direction that they take you.
  3. Ask them if they understand.  Have them repeat it to you if you are unsure.  Make sure that they are not misinterpreting the information that you have given them.
  4. Debrief with them.  Ask them how they are feeling.  If they are scared, validate them and remind them that it is understandable that they feel this way.  And then reassure them that these tragedies are most often uncommon.  If they want to develop a safety plan to make them feel better, do this with them.
  5. Use age appropriate words and speak calmly and matter-of-factly.  If you tell them in your own panic, they are observing your ability to manage your own anxiety.
  6. Choose a good time to have this discussion.  Allow for enough time to explore their feelings and answer their questions.  Pick a time that they are calm and attentive.
  7. If it is easier to do so, focus on emotions rather than facts.  Instead of talking about the death and destruction that occurred, you may feel more comfortable redirecting the conversation to feelings of fear, anger, and sadness.

For more helpful resources and information about having this discussion, please refer to the links/articles below:

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