Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How To Talk To Your Kids About Terrible Events (Without Freaking Them Out)

I often get asked how to talk with children about tragedies. Whether they are manmade (kidnappings, mass shootings, bombings, etc.) or natural disasters, children catch glimpses of horrible events fairly frequently and it is important to have an understanding of how to discuss those events with them. Some people ask if it is even the right decision to talk to kids about tragedies.

The most important action you can take is to plan ahead. Think about the age of your children and decide how you will respond the next time a tragedy strikes. That way, you will not be caught off guard if you start getting questions from your kids.

Here are a few tips to help you move in the right direction:

1. Your children are smarter than you think. The more we learn about children and child development, the more we know they are capable of understanding a lot of information. When I finished kindergarten, I barely new the alphabet. When my daughter finished kindergarten, she was reading. Kids can learn quickly, and they can understand more than we have traditionally given them credit for.

2. Even though they are smart, your children will still be confused about a lot of things. Depending on their age, they may have trouble comprehending the finality of death, and abstract concepts will be confusing. Many times, you need to share information with them in concrete and basic terms. For example, if you are talking about death, you might need to explain that once a person dies, she is gone and never comes back. You might then need to relate that concept to a pet or a person your child knows who has died ("like when Sparky went away, remember?").

3. Kids talk to each other. You may decide you do not want your children to know about a particular tragedy. That is a decision each parent must make on a case-by-case basis, and it is fine to decide that your kids do not need to know about something. But, keep in mind that other kids will have heard about it and they may talk to your children. You still need to be prepared to answer questions about a tragedy you wish your kids didn't know about.

4. Kids have the capacity to hear tragic news and then go about their day. This is a tough one for parents to deal with at times. You may be reeling from the devastating news coverage and your heart may be aching for the victims. Your children may ask you a lot of questions (things such as "What is death?" and "Who is God?"). After struggling to explain these huge concepts to your kids in an emotionally sensitive and age appropriate way, your kids will then say, "Okay, can we watch Teletubbies now?" They will be over it. You, however, will be wondering if 10:00 in the morning is to early to break out the vodka.

5. Kids listen to what you are saying (and the television). Contrary to how they behave sometimes, your children listen to almost everything that you say. If you are discussing a tragedy with other adults and your children are in the room, they are hearing what you say. And, if the news is on, they are hearing that too (and seeing the video images). Be careful not to overstimulate your children with images and details that are not age appropriate. There are times when you will need to stop talking with other adults until your kids are gone, and you will need to turn off the television.

6. Sometimes, children have heard too much. There are some common signs that your children have been exposed to too much information about a tragedy. If they seem stressed or overly scared, that might be a warning sign. If their imaginative play relates to the tragedy, or if it becomes violent in its imagery, that is a definite warning sign. Other warnings include problems falling asleep, misbehavior, arguing with friends or siblings, crying for no reason, clinging to loved ones, and refusing to go to school (or getting upset when you try to leave).

7. Be prepared to have a fairly short conversation about the tragedy with your children. You could potentially talk to an adult about a tragedy for hours, explaining it in detail and answering very sophisticated questions. But your children are different. They will only require a brief, simple explanation, and their questions will require simple answers (even questions that seem complicated, such as questions about death and the existence of God). You might only need to spend a few minutes talking with them about a devastating tragedy. Of course, the older your children, the more complicated your discussion will become.

8. Be prepared to answer questions about death and God. Trust me, this will come up, and you will panic if you haven't thought about how to describe these concepts to your children ahead of time.

Is it possible to have a deep theological discussion
with a human who thinks this is acceptable behavior?
I hope these pointers are helpful for you. Again, the most important step you can take is to think about how you will talk to your children before a tragedy strikes. Think about their age, about what types of tragedies they need to hear about, and how you will discuss it with

them. Be prepared for huge, existential questions, and come up with a way of answering those questions in a sentence or two.

Kids will hear about tragedies--the world is full of them. It is our job as parents to help them understand and navigate a world where bad things happen in an emotionally safe way.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


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