Last month, the unthinkable happened. Again. The recent tragedy at the Orlando night club, Pulse, has reignited the debate on gun control, safety and mental health services. But one aspect of this tragedy that needs to be further examined is how we should talk to our children about events that we don’t comprehend ourselves.
How we discuss the recent events has a lot to do with how we are reacting to the situation. Our kids will watch and learn from us. If we’re honest and open about how we feel and what’s going on, they’ll be more confident in expressing how they feel.
“Events such as the one that occurred [in Orlando] can remind us that, as a parent, you can’t protect your children from grief, but you can put all of your efforts into helping them express their feelings, comforting them and letting them know they’re safe,” says Dr. Wendy Rice of Rice Psychology.
Before you begin to explain the situation, though, make sure that you think of how the situation is perceived by a child. Once you have an idea what they might be thinking, you can begin to approach the subject.
Tell the Truth
It’s important that your kids feel and know you’re telling them the truth. If they feel you’re holding back, they’ll find other ways to get the information or learn not to trust you. Be open and honest with them about the tragedy and don’t try to hide what happened. Be sensitive to each child’s developmental age and try not to over explain.
Telling the truth also means inviting your children to ask questions and express their emotions. Make sure they understand that feeling sad or anxious is normal. It could also make your kids feel better knowing that you also are feeling upset about what happened. Be as straightforward as possible when you answer any questions. And if you don’t know the answer, say that. Sometimes there are no answers.
Remember that although you should tell the truth to your child, that doesn’t mean that they should be exposed to all of the media coverage. When a tragedy happens, we tend to keep the TV news on for hours, or we refresh our news feeds constantly on social media, but this can be damaging to both your kids and yourself. The images of a tragedy may be disturbing, the noises may be loud and some news outlets may be sensationalizing things, so it is important to power down during these times.
“Turn off the media. Turn off the news and social media and take a break,” says Rice. “Exercise, talk about other things and remember that in the midst of tragedy we have good things that are going on in our lives and it is okay to have conflicting feelings at the same time.”
Your kids may feel unsafe or scared. It’s our job as parents to make them feel as safe and protected as possible. The best way to make kids feel safe is by showing them that we love them unconditionally. It’s also important to convey the message that feeling scared sometimes is OK; however, it’s not a reason to stop living and enjoying life.
Knowing that millions of people go to school, work, sporting events and dance parties and don’t get hurt may help your kids feel more secure. Put the tragedy in perspective and explain how rarely tragedies like this occur.
The most important advice for parents to remember is to never dismiss their children’s fears. If they suddenly are scared to attend school, have bad nightmares or wet the bed, don’t disregard or poke fun at their emotions. Take time to discuss why they feel that way. This will not only validate their emotions but foster their self-esteem.
Focus on the Good
Avoid exposing your kids to media coverage of the tragedy. Instead, help your kids focus on the rescue workers who in the moments following the shooting put their lives on the lines to help protect those in the area. Remind them to focus on the doctors, nurses and EMTs who saved the lives of the survivors, as well as the thousands of people who donated blood in the wake of the shooting. When there is a tragedy, remind them to look at the people who are running to help.
“The vigils and the outpouring of support has been incredible,” says Rice. “Focusing on that can be helpful.”
Encourage your kids to do good deeds as this will help them feel they are making a difference. Write letters to the survivors or foster a victim’s pet. Try starting a fundraiser for the victims or reach out to troubled kids in your community. If your family thinks change is needed at the state and federal level, reach out to legislators and community organizations. Start a petition if need be. If you’re able to get more than 25,000 signatures, your family can submit that petition directly to the White House at WhiteHouse.gov/petitions.
Continuing a sense of normality at school, meals and bedtime will help your children get back to normal. Keep an eye on how your kids are interacting with you and each other. Since children don’t have the ability to process feelings like adults do, your children may have a hard time digesting the situation. If after a few weeks you don’t see improvement or your child is still unsettled, contact a mental health professional who is trained to help children process their emotions.
Opening the lines of communication between you and your kids will help reassure them that no matter what happens, you will always love and protect them.