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Talking With Your Child About Tragic Events

It is hard enough to find equilibrium amidst constant news about traumatic events; but it is another thing altogether to be prepared to support our children and protect them against emotional overload.

If we do talk to our children about events like the terrorist attack in Nice, or the shooting of black men and police officers, what is the best way? How should we help them navigate the rocky emotions and fears that are likely to come up in response?

Whether you start the conversation or have it thrust upon you, these guiding notions should prove helpful.

Keep children away from the videos that tend to emerge in the wake of a tragic event. If you can prevent even high schoolers from watching actual video of death and destruction, do so. Don't expose children younger than high-school age directly to news coverage or have potentially disturbing conversations with other adults within earshot.

If you do find that your child has seen such video or heard something disturbing, or if you stumble upon the child in the middle of viewing a frightening video, be careful not to over-react. Redirect the child’s attention from the device to a calm discussion with you. Ask the child what he or she saw. Ask if he or she wants to talk about it and what might help them understand it better or deal with the feelings that might have come up.

Tell the child only the most basic facts about the event. Avoid dramatization. “A man drove a large truck through a crowd at a celebration of Bastille Day in France. Over 80 people were killed. The police shot the man.” Or: “A black man was shot and killed by a policeman in Minneapolis.”

Listen and reflect. Allow the child to talk and emote about whatever comes up for him or her without judgment or efforts to “fix” or lead the child somewhere…until you…

…Talk about who helped and how they helped. Be as descriptive as you like in talking about the helpers in a tragic situation. The child can then hold hope and gratitude alongside grief and fear.

Don’t tell a child not to worry, or that there is nothing to be afraid of. This will feel dismissive and untruthful to the child. Tell the child that his fear, anger and grief are perfectly normal. Concisely identify your own emotions around it: “I feel sad too.” Some children might say they feel nothing, or that they feel numb; it is okay to say, “Sometimes we are so overwhelmed that we feel nothing or we feel numb. Let's keep checking in and see what feelings emerge later.”

Acknowledge the child for being willing to feel and express difficult feelings.Acknowledge how close this helps you feel to one another, and point out this closeness and comfort in vulnerability and sharing is one way helpers can help. “Sometimes, when bad things happen, the thing people need most is someone to listen to them without trying to fix anything, and that’s something we all can do for each other.”

Empathize with the child. If you are equally affected by the tragic event, it should be easy to connect around the big emotions it brings up. Let the child feel you feeling with him or her. Commend her for her strength, compassion, and other qualities that surface. Give hugs and loving touch as they seem called for.

Carefully avoid giving the child any impression that you need him or her to comfort you. The child should be allowed to share intensely, and to know that you can be a solid anchor for them while this is happening.

Help the child feel safe. In the end, once emotions have been fully felt, the child might still want reassurance that something tragic won’t happen directly to him or to someone he cares about. Once the child has had a chance to grieve or otherwise express and be supported emotionally, help him see all the ways in which he is safe and protected: “We are safe here now, and all is well.”

Young people need strong examples of adults who are willing to talk plainly and truthfully about tough subjects. They need examples of adults who are capable of listening to deep feelings and expressing their own in a contained manner.

Young people need to know that adults will be honest with them when they ask tough questions, and that adults will provide a safe harbor for their myriad emotions. Being authentic and genuine in these conversations will facilitate healthy, direct sharing from our children when tragedy strikes.

More importantly: if we make appropriate, parent-mediated space for our children’s process, we can also guide them through these upsets and back to the small and big miracles and joys of everyday life.

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Posted by Melissa Lowenstein, M.Ed., and Jennifer Freed, Ph.D.

Melissa Lowenstein (formerly Block), M.Ed., is AHA!’s Grant Writer, a Core Facilitator in the in-school and after-school programs, and co-leader of the after-school Creative Discoveries group. She holds a BA in Theater and Dance from the College of William and Mary in Virginia and a Master’s in Education from the University of Virginia. Melissa has worked as a freelance writer and editor since 1997 and has authored, co-authored, and ghostwritten over 25 books on topics including education, psychology, parenting, relationships, social-emotional learning, intentional community, and health.

Jennifer Freed, PhD is a psychotherapist, mediator, and author with over 30 years’ experience working with youth and deep roots in the Santa Barbara area. She began at age 19, running a peer counselor training program at Dos Pueblos High School; shortly thereafter, she began working for YouthWorks. She became Statewide Director of that program, which conducted research into reasons why young people were dropping out of school. Dr. Freed then worked in the field of job rehabilitation, where she helped people find job placements following illness or injury. She underwent training at the Rape Crisis Center, Domestic Violence Solutions, Pacific Pride Foundation, and the Community Counseling Center, and earned her Master’s in psychology from Antioch University by age 23. In 1999, just after the Columbine massacre, Dr. Freed started AHA! with Rendy Freedman, MFT, who became co-Executive Director. First, AHA! was a summer program largely staffed by artists and social-emotional learning experts who volunteered to work with the youth; it was so well-received that it was featured on the front page of the Santa Barbara News-Press. AHA! was soon invited to work with students at La Cuesta Continuation High School, then to Carpinteria and Santa Barbara High Schools. The after-school program was then added to AHA!’s offerings. AHA!’s Peace Builders, AHA!’s newest program, was introduced in 2013.

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