Should you talk about it at all? That is an important question in which the answer is more of an art than a science. Every child is different, the circumstances are different, and you as a parent, teacher, or guardian have careful discernment to do in determining the most helpful answer for the child(ren) with you. Things to consider in whether to talk about recent events or not:
- Will they encounter the information somewhere else? If it is likely your child(ren) may hear about what has happened in other settings, it will be meaningful for him or her to hear the news from you. Ideally, your home is a sanctuary for your child. A place where she or he can go out from and return to, having encountered any manner of things in the world and know that, at least at home, they are safe, loved, enjoyed, and can find respite.
- Are other adults around you trying to shield their child(ren) from what has happened? If you do share information with your child(ren), be mindful that other adults may feel differently. Consider whether your child is old enough to share information in respectful ways when they leave your home.
- Are they already curious about what has happened, or will you be introducing very new information? If you are introducing new information, you will want to be thoughtful about how you present it. Further, be thoughtful about whether you are introducing information accidentally or carelessly by having news on the radio, television, or computer. Be thoughtful about the images the children around you are witnesses, striving to find a balance between not hiding information from them while also not bombarding them with images.
Be a reliable, trustworthy adult for a child. Children need reliable, trustworthy adults in their life in order to grow well. These adults are not just parents, but other adults (family, friends, neighbors, community members) who are consistently a part of their lives, care about what they think and feel, and provide them with good.
Tell the truth. If you discern it is important to discuss a tragedy, stick to basic facts of the case. Do not embellish, and do not use euphemisms or metaphors. Be specific and simple. Here are words I used with my children (ages 4, 7, 9): “Something very sad happened today. A man who seems to have been very sick inside, came into a school. He had a gun and he shot people.” [Note: if a child among you is younger than three years old, this conversation is not necessary. They are not developmentally old enough to fully grasp what has happened, especially if they do not have a close contact with a victim or survivor. Though they may understand that adults around them are sad. If that’s the case, focus mainly on that part. If the child is two or three years old and knows a person intimately who died suddenly, you may discuss the fact that the person is no longer alive and discuss the concept of death. In this case, I often use pastoral counselor Wayne Oates’ practice of describing death with children as the experience where everything on the outside and on the inside stops moving.]
Let the child(ren) guide the conversation. A child’s age and development will influence how they respond to your sharing with them. Preschoolers tend to be very concrete, with bluntness that can be jolting for adults. For example, my four-year-old son asked, incredulously, “Did he shoot kids?!” Remember that this conversation is not about you, and that it is helpful if adults are mindful of finding safe forums with other adults for their own struggles with grief and sorrow so they can be mostly present to what a child in their care is thinking and feeling. Elementary school kids tend to express more empathy and make more connections. My daughter commented, “How sad . . .” And my oldest son asked, “Was it like when [another person who struggled with mental health] shot [some other people]?” Here are my responses to each, respectively: “Yes. He shot kids. Yes. It is very sad. You will see today and these next few days that many adults right now are very sad about this. And, we don’t know yet if it was similar to that other situation. We don’t have enough information yet.” If they ask a question that you do not know the answer to, remember to be truthful. Say something along the lines of, “That’s a good question. I don’t know.” You may suggest how the answer might be found, “Perhaps we could ask [a respected person we know] about that.” Or, as a faithful adult, you may suggest that you pray together to ask God for answers. Invite the children you are talking with to share with you how they are feeling. Some will want to, while others will not. If the child(ren) you are with do not want to talk, allow the conversation to end by letting them know that they can talk with you any time. Eventually, move on to other activities together – playing, making meals, home chores, etc – as a way of demonstrating the fullness of life continues, even as you are feeling very sad.
Encourage safety. Be mindful of how often news media is around your child(ren), through radio, television, phones, or computers. Try to take media breaks in the immediate aftermath of disasters, and when you are viewing or listening to news be careful to check whether the children around you are occupied in other healthful ways. Be thoughtful about how often your attention is divided. If you do discern a conversation with your child(ren) would be helpful, following their comments and questions, be sure to end by speaking to their safety. For example, you may describe how rare this act of violence was. Whether it is rare for your community or not, you may speak to helpers who are around, including other trustworthy adults such as police officers, firefighters, nurses and doctors, counselors, teachers, church members, pastors, or government leaders. You may speak to how people are working to make sure this does not happen again or begins to stop happening so much. You may remind them how you are together right now, and how safe you are together right now, how safe your home is. You might encourage them to locate the things that make them feel better. For example, for young children, it may be their security toys or blanket, and for older children, their favorite music or activities. Sometimes children will just want to be together, quietly. Consider finding a cozy spot together, perhaps playing some gentle music and lighting a candle to create a sense of present peace together for some time. Other times, children will have a lot of energy they do not know how to manage or talk about. One activity that can be helpful is to invite them to “push how they feel”. For younger children, you can brace yourself, with your feet at a wall and arms outstretched in front of you, and have the child interlock fingers with you and push how hard they feel. You might comment by saying something like, “Wow! I can feel you are feeling a lot right now.” Sometimes, at this point of recognition, they may cry and you can remind them again they are safe with you. For older children, you can have them try and push on something immobile like a large tree or a wall. As they do, again, you can comment on how you can see they are feeling a lot. Again, this moment of recognition might help them release some tension through tears, and, again, you can remind them they are safe with you.
When it comes to healing after trauma, spending time together and sharing your stories of both hurt and healing together can be very helpful for children who have survived tragedy. Stories can be shared by talking, and also by doing things together. You may pray together, listen to music, draw or paint together, play, or exercise together. You may sing or play instruments together, or incorporate special foods into your mealtimes to help recall happy memories and to express sorrow. Remember that not everyone heals in the same way. Healing, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Listen to your child for what seems most helpful to her or him. Also, be aware that your children may reenact violence in their play or art. This is a common way that children make sense of what has occurred. Invite them to share their creations with you. In addition, some ways that children discover hope is by pretending or artistically creating a solution. This is a way children begin to learn about repairing and restoring what has been lost or broken. Rather than dismissing their inventions, try to embrace them. You might consider saying something like, “How wonderful it would be to have a trampoline/cape/helicopter/raft like that, and be able to get out/away/free.” At times, their feelings may seem out of sync with your own. Be mindful of finding meaningful places for your own healing, beyond healing with children. Finally, consider having children participate in creating responses to tragedy both by incorporating their spontaneous gestures and interest into ordinary experiences, as they come up, and also through intentional community memorializing.
Whatever you do, do not try to pretend away or ignore the truth of what has happened with children. Pretending the truth has not happened, especially when children are in close proximity to a tragic event, causes children to doubt significantly their ability to trust their feelings. This produces deleterious effects on family and social systems and on children’s long-term sense of well-being. Kids experience adverse and extreme results when they grow up sensing truth among adults who refuse to speak of or acknowledge what has occurred. Emotional residue permeates, no matter how hard someone tries to reduce or ignore it. We do our children no favors by avoiding difficult or challenging topics. In effect, we do something worse. We avoid the vital relationship that occurs during pain, a relationship that children and the adults around them need greatly. The art of caring for children after tragedy, though, is that we also do our children no favors by overwhelming them with traumatic stimulation and keeping them from natural rhythms of repair they feel inclined toward, including taking breaks from media and conversation, play, and rest. The building or relational construction that comes about during the sharing of emotive content – including sorrowful experiences, joyful experiences, and boring experiences – creates the substance of what holds caring relationships together. That is, trust, reliability, emotional safety, and forgiveness. What occurs when two or three are gathered amid ordinary and extraordinary times becomes foundations for the next times that we encounter adversity or joy. Being in caring relationships with children during momentous life events is not about having answers. It is about practicing whole-self living within the frameworks of faith, hope, and love.
Practicing presence is hard. This discipline is hard when things are not stressful, let alone amid the chaos of tragedy. Yet, incredible strength and well-being can grow from the remnants after sorrow and destruction. As adults show up and companion with one another, as they stand ready to include children in the important experiences of grief, mourning, and lament that come up in various seasons of life, we go about the work together of rebuilding and sewing seeds for new life.
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