How to Talk with Your Child about Tragedy and Traumatic Events

by Connie Allen on December 21, 2012

What an emotionally complex time this is! The joy and numerous activities of the holidays. The tragic mass shooting and suicide in Connecticut. How to feel emotionally? Is it okay to feel love and joy when other parents are struggling with the grief of losing their child?

This is not something you can sort out intellectually. Emotions are not like that. How to be? Be wherever you are in the moment. Sad and filled with deep appreciation for your own child when you think of the children we have lost. Filled with delight when you see the magic of the holidays in your child’s eyes.

You can choose where you want to put your attention. Suppressing or feeling guilty about your own joy when others are in grief does not help them. Reaching out to them in love and caring energetically or in some real tangible way are more uplifting to them and to you. Joining them in their sadness and staying there denies your own joy to you and to them.

Yes, it may feel hard and it is do-able. It will make you a better person and parent. How’s that for big rewards?

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Here is an article I wrote in March of this year related to this topic Another School Shooting…Are You Paying Attention?

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Guidelines for Talking with Your Child about Tragedy and Traumatic Events

Times of crisis and distress are difficult and confusing for parents and children alike. How can you best support your child during these times? Here are guidelines to help you and your child navigate the challenging waters of painful events.

1. Remember that you and your child are separate and different people, and you will each feel your own unique emotions and process them in your own way. Your child’s and your experience may be profoundly different. Be prepared for this and be open to exploring your child’s feelings and thoughts separate from your own.

2. Before interacting with your child, focus on yourself first. What are you feeling? Be deeply honest here. Sometimes writing down your emotions can help you explore and clarify what you’re feeling and how you can take care of yourself and process the tragedy. Perhaps you can share your complicated feelings and thoughts with someone you trust.

By clarifying your own emotions and thoughts for yourself first, you can be more lovingly, neutrally present for your child. One thing you do not want to do is process your own feelings with your child.

3. If your child is young (under 8 or so) and she is not aware of the tragedy, there is nothing to be gained by telling her. Young children have greater difficulty understanding and putting in perspective what has happened than older children. There is no reason to stir up stress for your child.

4. In talking with your child, the most important thing you can discuss is their feelings about the event. Be there for your child.

Most articles I’ve read recommend answering your child’s question about the Connecticut shooting. I think this can be helpful, and what you’re doing is giving your child your perspective to help him. It is ‘your’ perspective.

Much more powerful and effective is to help your child explore his feelings and ideas, how he can best find his own way through this. Your best resources are deep listening, asking questions to understand, your love and caring, your time.

In asking your child questions, give him time to think things through within himself. Allow for times of silence in the conversation and be present. You may find your child has an immediate thought. Yet with a little more time, new insights and understanding may occur to him.

Here are some suggestions for the kinds of questions your child will find helpful:

~ How do you feel about ____ (description of the event)?

~ What do you wish would have happened?

~ What do you think you would have done in this situation?

~ Tell me more.

If your child expresses fear about her own safety:

~ What are you afraid might happen?

~ Has this ever happened before?

~ What do you want me to do? How can I help you?

~ What can you do to help you feel safe?

Of course, reassure your child based on your own experiences and be honest about your own feelings in a way that is as objective and neutral as you can. Do this after you listen to your child.

By listening to your child first, you will be able to more clearly respond to your child’s needs and feelings because you’ll understand more about what he is experiencing.

If your child asks why this happened:

~ Why do you think this happened?

~ What do you think the person who did this was feeling?

~ What could you do if you were feeling this way?

Again, your answer to this question is very appropriate here…after listening to your child.

Make it a sharing between the two of you as people with most of the sharing done by your child.

5. Observe your child to notice any changes in her behavior. If you notice anything that is troubling, be sure to bring up the subject again.

If, at the end of your conversation, your child seems happy and confident and you see no changes in behavior that indicate further stress, simply carry on with your life with no need to discuss it further. If your child continues to be trying to sort it all out, be open to continued conversations when she brings it up.

Remember, your most powerful resources in helping your child process tragic events are your love, being aware and observant of your child, your presence, focusing on yourself first, listening and asking questions.

I’d love to know how you’re feeling with this recent school shooting. How have you resolved it for yourself? What have you experienced or discovered in talking with your child about it? Please share in Comments below.

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Click here to read another thoughtful article that raises important questions and observations.

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