By Molly Getchell,
Development Coordinator at CCGC
On Facebook, on television, on the radio, we hear about tragedies all the time.
We can find news of terrible accidents, violent attacks, devastating illnesses, unexpected deaths on any day, on any platform. As adults reading or hearing about these stories, we know that there is often no explanation and no viable reason for these things to happen, but they happen anyway. When tragedy strikes close to home, it can feel like there are no words to express our sadness or our compassion for people who are suffering as the result of a tragedy….but we say the best words we can anyway. Human beings have shown time and time again that they can survive terrible times, and that even the worst emotional pain can be healed. But we also know that this is not a process that happens alone. In so many ways, we must rely on each other and be supportive, compassionate, and kind to others in order to weather the storm of a tragic event.
As adults, we know these things…
…and we know how important it can be to grieve- to express our pain and process our feelings in the company of others- in order to heal. But what do we do when tragedies in our communities affect our children? What do we do when tragedies involve our children? Where do we start, when teaching children about grief and grieving? How can we help them to process their own feelings, while also setting a good example when it comes to showing empathy and compassion for others?
It is understandable to feel overwhelmed by these questions. The nature of unexpected tragedies is that they are just that- unexpected. There is no way to predict what will happen, or the exact way that you or your children will react to a tragic event in your community. But just because children are small doesn’t change the basic, most important things about talking to someone who is grieving. Be calm, be kind, tell them how you feel, and ask what they are feeling. Answer their questions. Support their needs. As a parent, trust that you will know how much they can handle hearing right now, and which things can wait until a later time. Watch for signs that they may be grieving or feeling more stress and don’t be surprised if they regress to a younger age at times (e.g. have difficulty sleeping alone). Many schools have additional staff on hand to support students after a community tragedy. Remind your child to reach out to school staff when they are having difficulties related to the loss. Caution your younger children to avoid talking about the event with their peers without adult support present.
As all of us know, children can often surprise us. Not just with their resiliency, which is legendary, but also with the ways in which they show their love and empathy for others. They can surprise us with the creative ways that they think of to honor a friend, relative, or neighbor who is no longer with us. They even spontaneously and unguardedly bring us words of wisdom, strength, and clarity that we might not think of ourselves. For all of these reasons and a hundred more, the best thing we can do when talking to a grieving child is listen.
Because regardless of age, and regardless of how much you know about grief or how little, what is most important is the genuine feeling that we can rely on each other. Together, we can overcome tragedy, and we can head toward a happier future.
Looking for suggestions for how to get started? We hope these 8 tips will help!
8 Tips for talking to children about trauma and tragedy
Adapted from our previous blog post titled “Another Act of Violence?? What do I say to my kid?” By Anisa Cole
1 . Speak Calmly
Just after a tragedy occurs, you may be feeling emotional yourself, or may be visibly upset. If this is the case, wait until your calm enough to talk about it in a regular speaking voice. If you are too upset to talk, no one is going to feel better after your conversation.
2. Be there to help them interpret the things they hear.
When a tragedy affects an entire community, the chances that a child will hear something said (in the media or otherwise) is high. Monitor what they are seeing on TV or on the internet as much as possible and, regardless, make yourself available to answer questions about what they have seen or heard. Without knowing a lot of context around a situation, children may begin to draw their own conclusions and will need your help to sort out the truth of what is going on.
3. Talk to them at their level.
Make sure statements are age appropriate, and only talk about as much detail as your child can handle. Most of the time less is more when it comes to the specifics, especially any graphic details. It is also okay to wait for them to ask you questions, instead of supplying a lot of information right away. Children often have their own sense of what they are ready to hear, and will ask about the things they have some framework to understand (in other words, they aren’t likely to ask a question about something that they aren’t already thinking about, which can help steer the conversation in the right direction for them).
4. Be patient, and know that this is not likely to be just one conversation.
After your first conversation about a recent tragedy or traumatic event, allow them time to process your discussion and encourage them to ask questions later if any come to mind. Be prepared; these follow up questions could come at any time, in any form. If it isn’t a good time to talk, it is okay to say “I’m really glad you asked me that. Let’s talk about this when we get home/back to the car” or “That’s a great question, let me think about it and we’ll talk about it together in a little bit”.
5. Let them know it is okay to feel strong emotions.
There are some questions, especially around tragedy, that have no answers. If one of these arises, it is also okay to say, “I don’t know. But it makes me feel _________.” Sharing how you feel can help to validate your children’s feelings as well, and if your child expresses sadness, anger, or any other emotion it is important that they know it is okay to do so. Validate their feelings by saying things like “You’re right it is sad” or “I know you’re feeling scared/upset, but I want you to know that you’re safe and we love you”. If your child is struggling to express those feelings appropriately, modeling and suggesting better ways to express yourself is especially important. Coping skills like journaling and drawing, in addition to your conversations, can be great ways for children to express their feelings in a healthy and healing way.
6. As much as possible, focus on healing
As hard as this can be, try to avoid direct statements that make
7. When talking to older children, process more thoroughly and encourage compassion.
Depending on their maturity, it is often okay to go into more detail when talking to older children. You may find yourself looking things up together or discussing the context of a situation instead of just the tragic event itself. It is important and extremely valuable to explore these topics with your tween or teen in this way, and can lead positive experiences and growth even in the midst of a tragedy. Older children may also have a desire to get involved and help during a sad time, which can be encouraged in many ways, whether it means driving them somewhere to volunteer or by working together to collect gifts for those who are suffering. These acts of kindness bring comfort and healing to all parties involved.
8. Make Safety a Priority
Depending on the situation, this may be the driving force behind a conversation around tragedy, or it may not come up explicitly. Regardless, when strong emotions are involved it is always, always important to make it clear to children that they can rely on you, and can talk to you about anything they might be thinking or feeling. Let them know what other adults they can rely on as well: who else they can turn to if their feelings become unmanageable. Empower them to speak up if they are worried about either their own safety or the safety of others. Let them know that it is okay to be wrong about a situation, but that it isn’t okay to say nothing if you know someone is in danger, or about to do something dangerous. In this regard, it is also important to stay in communication with other adults in the child’s life, and make sure that there are resources available to help them if needed.
We know this topic is tough, and as always if your child’s feelings of sadness or anxiety become unmanageable please know that you can reach out to providers in the community to get additional support. There are many resources that can help, and together we can all be a stronger community.
*If your family or a family you know is struggling with anything related to the topics discussed in this post, please reach out to us here at CCGC at any time. We have resources that can help!*