Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Talking to Your Child About A Tragedy

Tragedies happen every day around us in our world, countries, cities and schools.  Addressing death and the emotions that accompany tragedy can make a profound, positive impact on our children.  Parents, counselors, teachers and other school staff are key adults in many students' lives.  We must be ready to meet this challenge with knowledge and skills that will best serve our children to cope with these sad experiences.

Challenges for adults discussing tragedy with children include:
  • We are unsure what to say
  • We are uncomfortable about it ourselves
  • We feel the need to protect and shelter
  • We believe talking about it will create fears/anxieties
Even if we fail to talk to children and youth about tragedy, they learn about it from the world around them.  These "learnings" don't always promote the best understandings.  Cartoons, books, movies, fairy tales and video games, all present tragedy as reversible and avoidable.  In cartoons, death is a fate that only happens to the "bad" guys.  Honesty is the best policy when discussing tragedy, yet we are often afraid we will say "the wrong thing." 

Here are some guidelines that are important to discuss when it comes to explaining tragedy:
  1. Tell the truth.  Talk to your children about what happened in terms that are appropriate to their cognitive and developmental levels.  Accurate information is central to the child's ability to analyze events and draw personally relevant conclusions.
  2. Avoid giving unnecessary information that would only serve to distress or confuse the child.  Young children think very concretely.  Therefore, explain concretely what happened.  Out of their own anxiety, children will need to talk about the tragedy.  If they don't have accurate information, they may distort the truth.
  3. Allow for expression/affirm all expressions.  Offer your children the opportunity to share their feelings about the tragedy.  A child may say, "I'm glad it didn't happen to me."  That is a very honest response.  It should be affirmed, not as self-centered, but as honest.  If a child begins to cry, let them know that feeling sad at a time like this is very normal.  Crying over something that is very sad is different from acting like a baby.
  4. Set aside time for written expressions for the bereaved family/children.  Notes, letters or pictures created for the bereaved children mean a great deal.  Screen these projects.  Children's anxiety and fear can result in insensitive expressions.
  5. Plan for the bereaved children's return.  Guide your child in deciding what to say and how to act when the children return to school or activities within the community.  Although classmates and friends should not expect the bereaved children to want to talk about it, the subject should not be ignored.  In addition to a death in a family, it is devastating for the bereaved child to be abandoned by friends at school or community organizations, resulting in another loss.  Classmates and friends might acknowledge it with a statement like, "I'm glad you're back.  I am really sorry ___ happened" and then treat the children as they did before the tragedy.
  6. This loss may remind your children of losses they have experienced.  They may need to tell and retell the story of what has happened to them.  This helps them process, piece by piece, until they form their own developmentally realistic understanding.
  7. Maintain or assure daily activities and routines.  Regular activities help children pace their energy and feel safe.  Maintain rhythm, patterns and routines while tempering your expectations with kindness and understanding.
Please remember these difficult times affect everyone differently.  Please contact me if your child needs additional support coping with a loss.

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