How to Talk With Children About Tragedy
Validate children's feelings and talk about safety.
Today's tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn. has left many parents asking how to handle discussing events like this with children.
Kristina Silvestry, MA, Counselor and Director of Berkeley Heights, NJ-based Peace of Mind Counseling and Wellness Center, said it's very important that first and foremost children feel safe.
"Find out what they've heard and then really validate their feelings," Silvestry said.
Silvestry advises against making dismissive statements such as "Everything's going to be fine."
"You never want them to feel that they're wrong for feeling what they're feeling," she said. "You have to give them time and let them process it. Let them ask questions and parents can pull upon things like their faith or other coping mechanisms as needed."
Silvestry said once the conversation is underway it can present an opportunity to talk about safety.
"You can start by saying 'Unfortunately, bad things do happen' and then talk to them about what you do in an emergency. Do they know to call 9-1-1? Are they comfortable with that? They need to know that there are adults who are there to help them and to protect them," she said.
Silvestry added that even those who have not experienced a tragedy firsthand can still experience grief and anxiety as a result of hearing the news and seeing images on television and the Internet.
"Many people experience Secondary Traumatic Stress," she said. "I imagine a lot of people, kids, parents, teachers, are going to come home scared tonight and they have very real reactions despite not being exposed to the tragedy directly. They need to take care of themselves, too."
On today's tragedy from National Alliance for Grieving Children Member The Center for Grieving Children, Maine has offered the following suggestions:
Each one of us may be experiencing many emotions—sadness, anger, despair and confusion—our basic ideas about safety called into question. We want to reach out to the people that we care about and we wonder how to help the children in our lives deal with their fears and questions.
1. Talk honestly about the magnitude of what has happened
2. Take a break from the news
3. Be patient, your child may need to revisit their feelings and ask questions several times
Mary Robinson, executive director of Westfield, NJ-based Imagine A Center for Coping With Loss, said the following links are definitive resources for supporting children who are grieving.
Below is a list of additional web resources that may be helpful for parents whose children are experiencing grief or confusion over a tragedy.
National Association of School Psychologists
Parents Trauma Resource Center
Traumatic Loss Coalition