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Talking to kids about tragedy

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Many parents feel that they would like to protect their children from the darkness that is in the world right now. There is wisdom in limiting their exposure, especially to repeated scary-sounding news stories on TV, Radio, or computers.

But it is important that you be the one that helps them learn how to handle their questions, fears, and uncertainties. Kids today are exposed to far more information than previous generations. The internet puts the most traumatic images and stories right at their fingertips . . . and children talk on the playground. Tragedies like 9/11, war, the quintuple murder of police in Dallas, and the mass murder in Las Vegas just yesterday.

Kids tend to show us how they are feeling through their behavior and moods since they are often not old enough to have the brain development responsible for putting feelings into words effectively. Red-flag patterns to look for include nightmares, crying spells, a shift in mood or personality, frequent head and stomach aches. Kids may hesitate to go to summer camp, or even church and school should they be carrying around a fear that somebody may come and hurt them. This may show up as wanting to stay home sick.

Sometimes these are fears due to kids hearing that school shootings etc. are becoming more frequent. It is important that this information is challenged by you–again, reassuring your kids that they are safe and that these kinds of tragedies are extremely rare, just more visible because of media and coverage.

Most kids just need to know that there is space is there to talk about it and to ask questions. Typically, after a few days of processing and steering clear of overexposure, kids are able to return to normalcy. Don’t hesitate to talk to me or another counselor if you are not sure.

Here are some best practices from the National Mental Health Association on how to talk to kids about tragedy (scroll down to see specific tips on each age group):

  • Encourage children to talk about their concerns and to express their feelings. Some children may be hesitant to initiate such conversation, so you may want to prompt them by asking if they feel safe at school. When talking with younger children remember to talk on their level. For example, they may not understand the term “violence” but can talk to you about being afraid or a classmate who is mean to them.
  • Talk honestly about your own feelings regarding school violence. It is important for children to recognize they are not dealing with their fears alone.
  • Validate the child’s feelings. Do not minimize a child’s concerns. Let him/her know that serious school violence is not common, which is why these incidents attract so much media attention. Stress that schools are safe places. In fact, recent studies have shown that schools are more secure now than ever before.
  • Empower children to take action regarding school safety. Encourage them to report specific incidents (such as bullying, threats or talk of suicide) and to develop problem-solving and conflict resolution skills. Encourage older children to actively participate in student-run anti-violence programs.
  • Discuss the safety procedures that are in place at your child’s school. Explain why visitors sign-in at the principal’s office or why certain doors are locked during the school day. Help your child understand that such precautions are in place to ensure his or her safety and stress the importance of adhering to school rules and policies.
  • Create safety plans with your child. Help identify which adults (a friendly secretary, trusted teacher or approachable administrator) your child can talk to if they feel threatened at school. Also, ensure that your child knows how to reach you (or another family member or friend) in the case of crisis during the school day. Remind your child that they can talk to you anytime they feel threatened.
  • Recognize behavior that may indicate your child is concerned about returning to school. Younger children may react to school violence by not wanting to attend school or participate in school-based activities. Teens and adolescents may minimize their concerns outwardly, but may become argumentative, withdrawn, or allow their school performance to decline.
  • Keep the dialogue going and make school safety a common topic in family discussions rather than just a response to an immediate crisis. Open dialogue will encourage children to share their concerns.
  • Seek help when necessary. If you are worried about a child’s reaction or have ongoing concerns about his/her behavior or emotions, contact a mental health professional at school or at your community mental health center.

Source: National Mental Health Association

Tips for kids under 6 yrs old

Keep it simple! Try to get the gist of things into 1 sentence that is age appropriate. Focusing on the positive at this age is important as it helps them to process without the hindrance of extra fear.

An example of a single sentence can be, “A bad person who was very sick hurt some people; but you are safe with us and they have the bad man.”

Tips for elementary school age kids

At this age, and it covers a wide range of development from first through 5th grade, we still want to keep it simple and safe, though 5th graders can understand a little more, and may have more questions.

As an adult, it is important for you to decide what you want children to take from your conversation from them: Fear or reassurance. . . Reassurance is the one to strive for. To accomplish this, be sure that you simple message is easily understood by who you are talking to (think about the difference in talking to a 1st grader vs a 5th grader). Focusing on the positive, like the heroes of the day and how safe we are because of these people (police etc) can be very reassuring.

Do not think that just because a child is in the 5th grade that they will be able to handle seeing traumatic images often put on TV and the internet. You need to shield them from these disturbing images as children have VIVID imaginations that are primarily visual, and these images will stick with children longer, and be more traumatizing. Should the kids see these pictures, a great way to handle it is to show them more positive images, like police and firemen getting awards, images of where they get to meet the people they saved, etc. Even taking your kids to a local fire station to meet and thank those first responders can be a powerfully positive experience that gives them a very real-life connection with heroism.

Tips for talking to tweens

“Seek to understand before seeking to be understood,” a Stephen Covey quote that applies here. What is most important for tweens (and teens) is that they know that they are being heard and understood–not sat down for a lecture. Definitely, answer their questions and impart your wisdom, but be sure to stop plenty and hear what they think and feel. Give them the room to have doubts . . . that it is safe to have questions and uncertainty because you will be there to help them when they need or want it.

Still do not focus on the gory details, but instead, use their questions and comments as a jumping off point for a conversation about values and knowing right vs wrong, how to be a hero.

Tips for talking to teens

Be solution focused, not problem or judgment focused.

Teenagers have a healthy drive to learn how to control their world. They are practicing making independent decisions to control the direction of their lives. This drive to find solutions can be harnessed by delving deeper into what they think about what is going on in the world, and how they can help at the local level (or more).

Asking them for their ideas about how to help, how to make a difference gives them the creative latitude to become a part of a solution that builds their character, and at the same time gives them a sense of control over a circumstance that was out of their control.

Please get in touch if you have any questions regarding any of this. I am here to help.

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