By Renee Koenig, Kewaunee County UW-Extension Family Living Educator
When tragedy occurs, it is important for parents to talk to their kids about what happened. This gives children the chance to express their feelings and their understanding of what happened. For many parents, this can be a difficult task. There are some guidelines for parents when talking to their child about a tragedy:
Adapt your conversation to your child’s age and level of understanding. The most important thing to keep in mind when talking to your child about a tragedy is the age and development of your child. Some children have more intense reactions to situations. This might determine the explanation or the amount of detail you give.
Encourage expression of feelings. Ask children to share their thoughts and feelings. Help young children express feelings through play, drawing or telling a story. Tell them it is alright to feel scared, angry, or confused. It is important not to dismiss your child’s feelings. Discuss how to think about tragedies and ways to be empathic for people affected by tragedy.
Remain calm. Generally children look to adults in times of tragedy and may mimic or pick up on the emotions of adults around. Your child will look to you to see how you react to the situation. Take time to get control over your own emotions before you talk to your child. This video clip from Mister Rogers may give parents some helpful ideas. http://www.fredrogers.org/frc/news/rare-video-mister-rogers-talks-children-adults-about-violence
Limit media exposure. Exposure to media coverage of the event should be limited especially for young children. Avoid constant and harsh exposure to images of violence or disaster through television or other media. Repeated exposure to images of violence can lead to trauma, anxiety or unhealthy responses. Be available to discuss what your children see and help them make sense of disturbing images.
You don’t need to give a reason. Many times youth may ask why an event happened, and adults may feel obligated to answer. Many times there is no known reason. Be careful not to blame a cultural, racial, ethnic, religious or another group. Teach children that alternatives to violence are available and discuss peaceful methods of action.
Reassure children about their safety. Explain what you, as a parent, and others will do to provide security. However, do not ignore the terror associated with events. Acknowledge children’s concerns for others.
Engage children in activities that relieve stress. Suggestions might include walking or other types of exercise, listening to music or engaging in spiritual activities.
Overall it is important for parents to talk to their child when tragedy strikes, even if the task is difficult. It is important for your child to feel that they are supported and safe, especially in a difficult time.
For more guidance on talking with your children, contact Renee Koenig, Family Living Educator, University of Wisconsin-Extension, Kewaunee County firstname.lastname@example.org.