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Children and Tragedy

As adults, we know that life is full of problems. The world we live in seems to get more frightening each day. We naturally want to protect children from the frightening details- after all, good parents don’t want their children to suffer.

There a lots of ideas of how to handle these situations. One is to tell children everything. Another is to tell them nothing. How do we best help children with difficult situations?

Naturally, we want to protect our children.

The answer depends greatly on the individual child and the specific situation. However, as a general rule, research suggests that explaining the actual truth to a child in language that the child can grasp, on a level they can understand is by far that best option.

Here’s why:

Children depend on adults for information about their world. Their brains are programmed to learn as much as possible and so are very adaptable. The nice thing about this is that children are surprisingly resilient. The not so nice thing is that children are very impressionable, and also retain all information, even what you may not intend to give them. They are also highly observant.

It is the observation we do not want to take lightly. If something is wrong, say if parents are having trouble getting along and may even be considering divorce or marriage counseling, they may say that they do not want to fight in front of the children, or do not want to give credence to the fact that there could be a problem. The marital trouble is between the couple, not the children. Or, if tragedy has hit the family, parents may want to shield their children from the truth of how and why their uncle really passed away or that there are quite horrific goings-on in the world, maybe even near their home communities.  The impulse: Protect the children.

This is an excellent and very natural impulse. However, that is not what the children will see. Children will see that Mom and Dad are upset. That the family is upset, maybe talking quietly to one another, asking them to leave the room, stopping discussions if they enter the room, or the children may overhear pieces of conversations. If the matter is relatively public, they will hear and see it on the news and/or at school. The message they get: Something bad is happening/has happened, but Mom and Dad aren’t talking about it. If Mom and Dad won’t even talk about it, it must be just too awful to talk about. They also cannot understand what the awfulness is, and an awfulness that is not specific can easily become generalized.

Moreover, this teaches children that the way to deal with awfulness is to simply ignore it, stifle it, or pretend it doesn’t exist. As mentioned in some early postings, this is not usually a healthy way to deal with problems, and the fact is, children will feel the effects of the “thing.” They’ll express themselves, too. If they can’t talk about something, they’ll act out.

To help children feel secure, they have to feel like they can understand things. Competence is a key development in childhood, so you can help them feel competent in the face of tragic or unpleasant circumstances:

Talk openly and simply. Use language the child can comprehend, and be gentle about it. Try to remain calm when you explain what’s going on.

Allow them to ask questions. Receive the questions, but if you don’t know the answer, that’s okay. Don’t give wrong information, but you can help the child find the answer, if you can. Some questions are not answerable, and that’s okay, too.

Explain that it’s okay for them to feel. You can tell them what your emotions are, too. If you feel sad or worried, you can tell them that, and then explain good ways to deal with those feelings. Help the child use those skills.

Let them know you are there for them. If children feel supported, they can handle a surprising amount. Knowing you are there for them is going to make them feel secure, even in an rocky situation.

Get extra help talking to your child if you need it, or counseling for either or both of you if you feel like it would help.

Talking to children about unpleasant subjects is a difficult thing to do, but it is actually the method that will make them feel more secure, not less. Bad situations make adults nervous, but having an adult talk to them makes children feel safer and supported.

If you’ve had a particular experience as a child or talking to a child in tragedy, what helped you? Comments are welcome and appreciated.




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