As a nation, we watched with horror as the Charles and Braden Powell tragedy unfolded. Even as adults, it can be difficult for us to comprehend such sad events. Some of us may attempt to deal with such actions by trying to search out and understand every last detail of the story. Others may do the opposite and push the event away from their minds. Some of us may try and pretend that nothing has happened. When sad and difficult events occur in our world, it is hard to know how we should react.
As difficult as tragedy can be for adults, it poses even more challenges for children. When children encounter stories like these, the stories may give rise to questions, concerns, fears, and anxieties. As adults, it is difficult to know how to address our children’s questions about such events, whether in the news or in our personal lives. We want to be truthful with our children, but we also want to protect them from the cruelties of the world. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, after basic physiological needs such as food and water, our very biggest need as human beings is to have a sense of safety. If children do not feel safe, nothing else makes up for that need.
Being unsafe sometimes and and being uncertain sometimes are a part of the world in which our children live. As parents, we have the difficult task of reconciling this with our desire to keep our children safe. Below are some guidelines for discussing traumatic events with children. These guidelines apply whether we are discussing an earthquake in Thailand or the death of a family in Washington.
1- Provide answers to the child’s questions at the child’s level of development. If your child is very young, their community is their world. There is no reason for you to expose them to the news of the world. They do not have a sense of perspective with which to filter or understand the information they are getting. Often at this age, the best course of action is to make sure kids are not exposed to media that is geared towards giving adults information.
2- An effective answer to your children’s questions about difficult events starts with listening carefully to the question. In the child’s question, you will want to look for the emotion that is behind the question, and answer both the content of the question while also addressing the emotion that the child is trying to convey.
As an example, if a child has heard about the Charles and Braden Powell tragedy, they may come home and ask “is it true that a dad killed his kid?” To create an appropriate answer, first tell the truth: “yes it is true that happened.” You want to tell the truth, even if it is a hard truth because that says to the child that no matter how hard the situation, you can trust me as your parent. Often parents want to lie to soften the truth, but this merely teaches children that parents cannot be counted on in times of stress.
Next, address the emotion behind the question by saying something like, “ I bet that feels scary to think that a father could kill his children.” By taking this step you are letting the child know that you understand the child’s feelings. Often providing words to children’s emotions helps them open up and express more of their feelings.
3- You can then help address an emotion like fear by putting the event in context. Children have no sense of proportion for tragic events, and you can help provide them one. Try to find an easy and relatable way to put an event in perspective. Continuing with the example from above, you might look at a huge field of grass and let the child know that there are more fathers in this world than there are blades of grass. That one of those fathers was broken and so he did a very wrong thing. Let the child know that makes most people sad and scared, but we forget to see that there are all those blades of grass out there that are not broken. This sense of perspective and scale can be comforting to the child.
4- Reassure the child about blame. When bad things happen, children sometimes blame themselves and other children. In the above example, let the child know that whatever happened was not the boys’ fault. Let them know that no matter what, you would never behave that way.
5- Ask the child what would help them feel better. This gives the child some power in an otherwise powerless situation. Perhaps they want to draw a picture for the family or write a poem. Maybe they need to cry or be held. If they are older they may want to donate some money or time to a children’s shelter project. Down the road, this can become a stepping stone to discussions about what it means to be a parent and what an important job it is.
6- Above all the goal is to teach your children that bad things can happen in this world and we cannot control that, but we can control who we are and how we respond to those situations. Also show your child that no matter what, you will be there as an anchor to be truthful and to allow your children to show and explore their feelings about their world.