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Question: There has been so much tragedy in the news lately. Even though I try to shield my kids from it, they always seem to know what’s going on. They hear about it at school or they read about it online. It’s so stressful for them because they don’t understand what they’re hearing. So my question is: What do we say to our kids when there is no logical explanation for what is happening in the world?
Answer: Indeed, these are unusually difficult times. With multiple large-scale hurricanes and the most deadly mass shooting in our nation’s history, parents have good reason to feel overwhelmed. As much as we would like to protect children from the harsh realities of today, it’s just not always possible. Inevitably, kids pick up on the news. Whether it’s the perceptive intuition that children are known for, or because they accidentally overheard adults talking at the supermarket, or perhaps they stumbled upon the information firsthand; most children know when something serious and scary is going on around them.
If you’ve noticed an increase in your child’s anxiety or a growing urgency to make sense of the insensible, you are not alone! This is happening in households all across America. Adults and children alike are searching – no yearning – for ways to reconcile the heartbreak we’ve recently witnessed in our country.
Here are a few things for parents to think about when news of devastation rattles your children:
Be honest with kids about your feelings.
It’s okay to let your children know that you are upset. Talk to them about the parts of this tragedy that are upsetting to you. Describe how you feel and what you are doing to cope with the news. Showing your vulnerability – being authentic and human – invites a deeper connection and opens the door for kids to express themselves more freely.
Clear up misinformation that may be exacerbating children’s concerns.
The rumor mill (especially in smaller communities) is a very real thing. One child might hear multiple versions of a particular incident from their peers, and parents would be wise to help sort out fact from fiction. Some parents may choose to deliver news of a disaster “preemptively” before their kids hear about it elsewhere. If this is your approach, remember to keep details to a minimum, explaining only the specifics that a child would need to know (based on their age; older children can cope with more complex realities). You might say something like, “Another horrible tragedy happened and innocent people got hurt. A lot of us are very upset today. You might hear about it at school, so I wanted you to know what’s going on. Let’s plan to talk later after we’ve had more time to process what happened.”
If possible, reassure children that they are not in immediate danger.
It is perfectly normal for children to develop fears of a similar tragedy happening to them or their loved ones. Adults can usually rationalize that this isn’t very likely, but children lack the advanced reasoning skills and logic involved with coming to that conclusion. While it may be common for kids to internalize a disaster, there are things parents can do to prevent children from getting stuck in a negative thinking pattern. If your child is prone to this type of worry, help them identify the specific steps your family takes to stay safe. Emphasize emergency plans that are already in place, such as what to do in case of a flood or fire. You might point out the many adults whose job it is to keep us safe (such as police, firefighters, and school teachers).
Find ways to take action!
We all feel a sense of powerlessness in the wake of a tragedy. Remember there is always something you can do to help victims, even if only on the smallest scale. For example, parents and kids can send letters of hope to elementary school students in an affected area. Or you might collect old backpacks and purses from around your house, fill them with small hygiene items and ship them to an organization that serves people in need. Some parents have collaborated with their schools to host a fundraiser in support of families impacted by an event. Mobilizing resources to ease the suffering of others is a tremendous way to cope and heal after a disaster.
Get help if the news becomes ‘too much’ for your child.
As I said before, we are facing uniquely difficult times. Bad things are happening around us, children’s questions are mounting, and parents are running out of answers. Some children have a tendency to internalize these tragedies more than others. If your child demonstrates the following behaviors, you may want to consult with your pediatrician or a mental health profession for more guidance:
- Unusual sleep disturbance (i.e. nightmares, difficulty falling or staying asleep)
- Refusing to eat or engage in schoolwork because they are “too upset”
- Feeling depressed, numb, or guilty about what happened
- Obsessive thoughts about safety, death, or the experiences of each victim
- Significantly negative changes in mood, personality, and/or temperament
Today’s parents are facing the impossible task of trying to explain the unexplainable. Of course we don’t feel prepared to have these conversations with our kids. Each of us is struggling to find the right words. It’s difficult and uncomfortable and we’d rather not have to do it at all. But having the courage to talk to our children is the first step in raising a generation that will think and act with human kindness as their guiding principle. In the meantime, I hope you find comfort in this reassuring reminder from Mr. Rogers…
“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Lauren Ferguson, MS, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Conifer Play Therapy. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Child Development and a master’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies. Lauren is a dedicated wife and mother of two energetic boys. She has enjoyed helping children and families thrive for over 20 years! For more information, visit www.coniferplaytherapy.com or call 720-323-9219.