As I reflect upon the tragic events of the past weekend in the town our family called home for nearly 30 years, my mind goes to the children of that community. So often children are thrust into adult scenarios and faced with adult conversations that are simply not within the realm of their understanding. Children have an innate need to feel safe and secure that rests in the reptilian brain, the oldest part of the brain, responsible for survival instincts. It they don’t feel secure, their development can be drastically stunted. It’s up to their caretakers, guardians, parents, loved ones and associates to help them feel safe. Here are a few suggestions to help you help the children in your life cope with tragedy.
- Turn your TV off. It is very difficult to shut out the media when a tragedy rocks our community or our country; however, oftentimes children do not have the ability to distinguish what is the reality of many news reports. What they do realize is something is wrong and their personal safety feels threatened. Get your news from a source that only you can hear/see (reading online, etc.). The same goes for adult conversations about tragedy. Have those conversations when your children are not likely to overhear you. Allow your child to hear about tragic events from YOU, not the media and not friends at school.
- Keep a normal routine. Routine helps children in every day life. Being able to predict what happens next adds to their sense of security. As much as is possible, go about your normal routine. Pay close attention to your child and any unusual behavior you may notice. Sometimes a child will regress with potty training, thumb sucking, language, separation, etc. if s/he has been adversely affected by a tragic event. The sooner you address these behaviors, the better.
- Give information as your child asks. Even though we may be consumed with a horrific event, wanting to find out everything we can, your child cannot process adult content or context. Use your child’s questions as a barometer for how much detail you provide. Certainly, if your child has heard about a tragedy through friends or overheard adult conversations, it is important to help him/her feel safe by clarifying in simple terms what they may know (“A man hurt some people we don’t know. It’s very sad when people do bad things. But, you are safe and so am I. We are going to be ok.”). Redirecting them at this point is important (“Let’s go read a book together!” “Do you want to put a puzzle together?”).
- Show support/Be of service. If an opportunity presents itself, involve your child in supporting or being of service to victims. Firstly, and most importantly, you and your child can pray together for victims of a tragedy. Again, the words you use are important. They should be simple, loving, hopeful, and on a child’s level. If the event took place in your community, you may have an opportunity to deliver food, clothing, or other items to a collection center or to victims, themselves. Of course, you will want to be very careful of anything your child may see and may just want to involve him/her in preparing something and not the actual delivery, depending on the specific circumstances.
- Be yourself. You may be drastically affected by a horrific event, so it’s ok to show emotion. If your child sees you crying, you can simply say, “I’m sad this happened and sometimes when I’m sad, I cry. It helps me with the sadness.” Your tears may open up a worthwhile conversation and a teachable moment.
Certainly, if your child is of the age/maturity s/he can understand tragedy in more depth, any conversation you have with him/her could become an opportunity to discuss “stranger danger”, becoming separated in public, a secret password, death, etc. Take your cues from your child and remember, your child will take his/her cues from you. However you deal with adversity, tragedy, and disappointment, you are modeling for your child. S/He is watching you and retaining in long-term memory your response to particular events and circumstances in your life. Use a calm, reassuring voice and be uplifting and positive in your tone and word choices.
In his simple, yet genius manner Mr. Fred Rogers gives brilliant advice about this very thing: “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.'”