In the midst of a tragedy or disaster, you might feel helpless. I know a recent conversation with my nine year old son about his fear of being persecuted as a Jew in light of the most recent events in Israel drove home just how much our children need us to be there to comfort them.
Children, like many people, may be confused or frightened, and will most likely look to adults for information and guidance on how to react. Parents and caregivers can help children cope by establishing a sense of safety and security. As more information becomes available, adults can continue to help children work through their emotions to minimize stress and hopefully, prevent trauma.
Talking to your child about a tragedy can help him/her understand what’s happened, feel safe and begin to cope. If you don’t speak to your child about a tragedy, he might hear about it from someone else. It also might give the sense that what happened is too horrible to talk about, making the event seem even more threatening.
There’s not necessarily a right or wrong way to talk to your child about a tragic event. Think about what you want to say and choose an appropriate time such as at bedtime or dinnertime
You might start by asking your child what he or she already knows about the tragedy. What has your child heard in school or seen on TV? Make your child feel comfortable asking questions and discussing what happened. However, don’t force your child to talk.
Listen closely to your child for misinformation, misconceptions and underlying fears. Provide accurate information. Share your own thoughts and remind your child that you’re there for him or her. Also, be sure to explain that the event isn’t his or her fault.
Your child’s age will play a major role in how he or she processes information about a tragedy.
The Staten Island Jewish Community Center offers these 10 tips for talking with children about tragic events and disasters1. Model calm and control. Children take their emotional cues from the significant adults in their lives. Avoid appearing anxious or frightened, take some time, and determine what you wish to say.
2. Reassure children that they are safe and (if true) so are the other important adults in their lives. Point out factors that help ensure their immediate safety and that of their community. Stay close to your children. Your physical presence will reassure them and give you the opportunity to monitor their reaction. Give plenty of hugs. Let them sit close to you
and at bedtime reassure them that they are loved and safe.
3. Remind them that trustworthy people are in charge. Explain that emergency workers, police, firefighters, doctors, and the military are helping people who are hurt and are working to ensure that no further tragedies occur.
4. Let children know that it is okay to feel upset. Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy like this occurs. Let
them express their feelings and help put them into perspective. Even anger is okay, but children may need help from adults to assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately
5. Observe children’s emotional state. Depending on their age, children may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns can indicate grief, anxiety or discomfort. There is no right or wrong way to feel or express
grief. Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater risk for severe reactions. Seek the help of a mental health professional if you are concerned.
6.Tell children the truth. Don’t try to pretend the event has not occurred or that it is not serious. Children are smart. They will be more worried if they think you are too afraid to tell them what is happening.
7. Stick to the facts. Focus on the basics, and avoid sharing unnecessary details. Limit your child’s television viewing of these events. If they must watch, watch with them for a brief time. Don’t sit mesmerized re-watching the same events over and over again.
8. Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate. Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that the daily structures of their lives will not change. Get down to your child’s eye level. Speak in a calm and gentle voice using words your child understands. Explain what happened and how it might affect your child. For example, after a storm you might say that a tree fell on electrical wires and now the lights don’t work. Share steps that are being taken to keep your child safe. Give plenty of hugs.
Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Children in this age range might have more questions about whether they’re truly safe. They might also need help separating fantasy from reality.
Upper middle school and high school children will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence and threats to safety in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. They will be more committed to doing something to help the victims and affected community. Older children will want more information about the tragedy and recovery efforts. Help children/teens understand that “acting out” behaviors are a dangerous way to express strong feelings. Examples of acting out include intentionally cutting oneself, driving recklessly, engaging in unprotected sex, and abusing drugs or alcohol. You can say something like, “Many children and adults feel out of control and angry right now. They might even think drinking or taking drugs will help somehow. It’s very normal to feel that way- but it’s not a good idea to act on it.” Talk with children about other ways of coping with (distraction, exercise, writing in a journal, spending time with others). Be a good listener!
9. Maintain a “normal” routine. To the extent possible stick to your family’s normal routine for dinner, homework, chores, bedtime, etc., but don’t be inflexible. Children may have a hard time concentrating on schoolwork k or falling asleep at night. Spend extra time reading or playing quiet games before bed. These are calming, foster a sense of closeness and security, and reinforce a sense of normalcy. Spend more time tucking them in. Let them sleep with a light on if they ask for it.
10. Be a model for your children and monitor your own behavior and stress level. Don’t ignore your own feelings of anxiety, grief, and anger. Talking to friends, family members, religious leaders, and mental health counselors can help. It is okay to let your children know that you are sad, but that you believe things will get better. You will be better able to support your children if you can express your own emotions in a productive manner.