After difficult, scary, tragic and traumatic events, providing your family with support and calm, although difficult can significantly help your child and your whole family cope better and restore calm.
Here are some ideas to help your family cope with difficult events:
Try to stick to the daily routine: As much as possible, try to keep your normal routine. The predictability helps your child feel calm and safe, so continue with everyday activities, such as playing, learning, reading stories, serving foods that are familiar. When it’s impossible to keep the routine, try to find things that comfort your child and any parts of the routine that you can keep.
Keep Connecting: Take time to be together, playing, walking, talking, the time to connect really helps children feel safe. When parents are sad or grieving, it may be difficult for a child to understand, if you can make yourself available for connection even in just little bits of time it can be helpful to both of you.
Listen & accept feelings: Encourage your child to freely express her emotions and thoughts. Using art to make a picture or writing a story together can be a helpful way to help children talk through their feelings. Try to remember that crying is very normal and a healthy way for children to process everything they are going through.
Remain kind and firm: Along with crying, some children as they cope with feelings look for different ways to process their feelings and express that they need help/connection and attention. Children may throw stuff, cry over what seems to be “nothing”, bother siblings, saying NO to everything. All that is ok, and will likely pass but it’s important to be compassionate, understanding and kind while still setting limits because in those limits is a lot of security for children.
All questions are good questions: Children may ask “WHY?” a lot, or “Will this happen to me?” and “Are we safe?” these are all valid questions and a chance to open a dialogue. Answer questions as best as you can with simple explanations and try not to invalidate feelings by saying things like “don’t be silly” or “stop worrying”.
If you can’t answer a question, let your child know you will think about it and answer it when you can, you don’t have to have all answers right away.
Sometimes it’s helpful to just ask a question in return “What do you know about what happened?” or “What have you heard about this?” so you can have a better understanding of what and how much your child is aware of and what they need clarification about. Share your own feelings too.
My son’s friend was recently in an terrible accident and is currently in the hospital, immobilized and being monitored in intensive care. We’ve been talking a lot about it because, it’s sad and shocking and my son is really worried for his friend (we all are). My children have asked many times to hear what happened and why it happened and if the same thing can happen to any of us. Their questions are genuine worry and a desire to understand. We keep answering them and reassuring him that our PLAN is to help each other be safe. We have also shared our feelings about it openly for example I have said something like “I am really sad that this happened to your friend and I feel sad for his family. I am really hoping the doctors will be able to help your friend, they are working hard so he comes home soon. How are you feeling about this?”
Turn off the news/monitor screen time: Avoid exposing your child to graphic images and descriptions of troubling events, it can be really scary and worrisome for both of you. If you wish to keep up to date on what is happening, try to do so discreetly. An older child or teen may wish to read about news events, try to find reputable sources that focus on news – it’s really helpful to be available to answer questions and discuss what they have read about.
Inspire a sense of hope: Particularly with tragic events, it can be helpful to talk to children about how hope and kindness exist and that many many people in the world work really hard to help people when scary things happen. Talk about the work of police officers, fire fighters, nurses, doctors, and ambulance drivers , teachers, kind friends and neighbors. Talk about everyone that works hard, the helpers that want to keep the world safe.
Involve: Invite your children to be helpers themselves, maybe they want to make a card for a friend that is hurt, send some allowance money to a relief fund, bake cookies for the town’s helpers. These simple gestures model kindness and compassion and well the world needs a lot of that, doesn’t it?
Take care of yourself: Taking care of you, both physically and emotionally, is so important, for every day parenting and particularly during difficult situations. When you fill your own cup you are better able to be supportive, patient and helpful to your child. Don’t be afraid to lean in to your support system of family, friends, neighbors, community, church groups for help. Be aware of your own feelings, and take time to express yourself, talking, journaling, calling a friend etc…Especially young children take their cues from us parents, so if we can stay calm, they are more likely to be calm as well. This doesn’t mean we should hide our feelings, but just be aware of what you are modeling.
Tragedies and difficult moments are tough to understand for children and for us adults. Watching our children be upset, fearful or confused is not easy at all. We can’t undo what happened, we cannot keep our children from feeling upset but we can be supportive and loving and open to all the questions, and grateful, very grateful for every day we have together with our wonderful children, friends and family. Keep striving to be kind, positive and compassionate.
Peace & Be Well,
For more resources on how to talk to children about tragedy check out these posts:
Here for each Other: Tips for Parents and Caregivers from Sesame Street (PDF)
Talking to Children about Tragedy from Bonnie Harris – Connective Parenting
How to Talk to Kids about Tragedy like School shootings from Dr. Laura Markham at AHA!Parenting
Talking to Children about Violence and Terrorism from Kids’ Health
Talking to Kids about the News from PBS
How to Talk to Children about Boston Marathon Bombs From Common Health