Talking to children about tragedy

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOTV) – Violence in our schools, like we saw last week in Florida, can be hard to explain to young children. Our friends at Pine Rest sat down with Maranda, and shared a video, to help start the process.

>>> Take a look in the video above.

Talking to children about tragedy is a responsibility most adults would love to avoid. Wouldn’t we love to live in a world where especially children were free of fear, pain, and sadness. If only children did not need to hear about things like the Sandy Hook school shooting, incidents of abuse, or the death of loved ones. But of course, they do hear. And they are full of questions, Could this happen to me? To my parent? Will my parent return from work safely tonight? Their eyes will be

focused on you for clues regarding whether the danger is real and present and how they should react. Whereas there are no magic, painless words to protect them from bad news, there are certainly compassionate, helpful ways.

Here are seven suggestions for how to do this very tough job just a little bit better:

1. Start by listening.

First, find out what the child already knows. This information should guide your response. The aim is not to worry them with the devastating details, but to protect them from misinformation they may have heard from friends or disturbing images they may have seen on television.

2. Provide clear, simple answers.

Limit your answer to the question asked and use simple language. Share information in age appropriate ways. Many times in a variety of life situations, adults need to titrate the sharing of adult information based upon the maturity level of the child recipient. Gauge the maturity of the child with whom you are speaking and then share discretely on a ‘need to know basis’.

3. If you don’t know the answer, admit it.

This is a tough one for us adults who are supposed to know everything but if children ask questions that you can’t answer, tell them so, and then do some research to try and help them sort it out. If they ask ‘Why did this have to happen?’ don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know.’

4. Follow media reports or online updates privately.

Young children in particular don’t have clear grasps on the concepts of reality and fantasy or of the passage of time and these factors can contribute to harm. Seeing or hearing about the horrifying details of violence may be more than they can integrate and cope with. Be careful about what you share with other adults when children are present. Kids have great hearing when listening for adult secrets!

5. Concentrate on making them feel safe.

When tragedies occur, children wonder if the same event could happen in their family. Assure them of their safety and your commitment to keep them safe. Let them witness you performing some task that would increase their safety. Perception is reality.

6. Give children creative outlets.

Some children may not be prepared to speak about what they have heard, but may find drawing or other creative play activities helpful to deal with their emotions and stress. Those drawings can also be helpful starting points for conversation.

7. Model strength, involvement, and compassion.

Sometimes it seems that children don’t hear a word we say. But they’re watching!  Children will watch you carefully for signs that danger exists and your behavior must match your words. It’s fine to demonstrate concern, sadness, and caution but let them also see your ongoing confidence and competence. Let them see how your faith in God provides strength for you. One of the best ways to make a child feel safe is to take good care of yourself.

The tragedy offers a prime ‘teachable moment.’ Talk about how badly you feel for the family and friends of the victim of those impacted. Pray with the children for those most impacted. If you contribute something to help the family, let the child know about it.

Placing themselves in the situations of victims is not all bad, it is a sign of empathy, an essential life skill, but watch for signs of excessive worrying.

I know of few callings more important than providing comfort to a hurting child. Let’s do it well.  They will never forget how you respond. Neither will you.

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