By Amy Alamar
It seems that all too often we are witnessing tragedy. Just this fall we’ve seen devastation to much of our country caused by hurricanes and horrifying violence. There’s no telling what is to come and there is no way to prepare for everything. So, it’s important that we use this time to talk with our children and families and help them to process the situation.
It’s natural to want to shelter your children from frightening news, and while the instinct is well-intentioned, it’s actually better to talk to them and give them some tools to help them cope. It’s a good idea to limit their screen time where they can see continuous news and images of these events, but don’t hide what they will likely learn about through word of mouth. Children sense anxiety and stress so it’s unwise to try and shield them from it entirely.
These tragedies are so enormous in scope that it’s impossible to hide them. Instead, parents can use these events to start conversations with their children about how the world may not always make sense but you must continue living your life, and not let fear dictate how you live it. To help get these conversations started, here are some tips to help parents talk to kids of all ages:
- Create a safe haven: First and foremost, you should assure your child that your number one job is to keep them safe and that you will do your best to achieve that. Assure them that their school has policies in place (you can remind them of the fire drills they’ve done) and that they should feel confident in their daily activities. Being safe includes being aware and cautious but it doesn’t have to mean living in a constant state of worry.
- Have an authentic conversation: Don’t hide your own feelings, and let your child know their feelings are normal, whatever they are. We can go through stages when we are processing tragedy and our feelings will vary based on our connection to the tragedy. And if your voice quivers or tears flow, your child will see that you are human and this is a sad and difficult conversation for you to have.
- Allow for questions: Encourage your child to ask you whatever questions they may have. And, if they don’t have any now, they can always ask later. Also, if you don’t know the answer right away, you can try to find it together. Do be sure to address their questions directly and honestly.
- Be open and honest with your children: Try to rely on facts first and then share your own perspective (letting them know it is your perspective and they are entitled to their own).
- Let them look: In the spirit of being open and honest, allow your child to see some images from the scene if they are curious. Be careful what you share, especially with very young children (in fact, abstractions of the scene such as maps can be a good place to start with young children), and talk about the images after they’ve seen them. The reason to do this is to help them process what they see and hear – with you nearby to provide context and compassion.
- Find meaning in the moment: Use these events to show your kids how they can prepare for natural disasters, such as hurricanes, by making an emergency kit for your home and also how to help those in need perhaps through a local charitable fundraiser. If you are socially active or politically inclined, join up with a local group to protect causes important to you and your family.
- Keep an eye out: Look for signs that your child is processing the news. If he or she seems off, distracted, or anxious, check in. You might notice changes in sleep, eating, or other behaviors.
If you have been personally affected by these tragedies, do not be afraid to seek out help from a professional. It takes courage to ask for help. Be brave and strong for those around you. Get the support you need so you can continue to support your friends and family.
Dr. Amy Alamar has worked in the field of education as a teacher, teacher educator, researcher, parent educator and education reformer for over fifteen years. She’s a frequent speaker to parent and faculty groups, and in 2014 she published her first book entitled Parenting for the Genius: Developing Confidence in Your Parenting through Reflective Practice. She co-hosts Yellowbrick’s popular “Parenting From The Trenches” video series.