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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.




Beginning in the Dark Emotions

Hello Minutars….

I’m going to start  a brief weekly series based on the book Healing Through the Dark Emotions by Miriam Greenspan.  This is part review, part personal musing, and a lot of application.

If you haven’t read the book, I recommend it. As a self-help book, it goes deeper than many, both for your personal growth and as a social comment. Much of the premise involves how we socially conceive of the dark emotions grief, fear, and despair. This is a very important factor in our understanding how we approach our own emotions.

For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to pick one emotion at a time, but not in the same order they are written. I may well go backwards (for those of you who may choose to read the book.) None of this will replace reading the book for yourself.


” ‘Can you eat when you’re in the depths of despair?’  ‘I’ve never been in the depths of despair.’  ‘Can’t you imagine you were in the depths of despair?’ ‘No, to despair is to turn your back on God.'” – Anne of Green Gables

So, today, I’m approaching despair. What is despair? Emotional intelligence would probably describe it as a judgment of something as hopelessly negative, that the positive is unattainable, that our goal- or any goal- can ever be met and that we and our lives are somehow useless. This leads to the conclusion that there is no point to anything and the depression and despair that follows.

Truly, despair is a painful emotion. Who wants to feel despairing? We get the idea that if we feel despair that must be the truth. There’s a funny thing about “truth,” though: Truth is subjective. Truth is subject to opinion, to circumstance, to perception, and the amount information we actually have.

If despair becomes truth, does despair color the truth? In short: Absolutely. It alters our perception, and thus, alters truth. What if we altered the truth? Would that alter perception, and thus, despair? If this is the case, what is despair telling us?

Something needs to change.

We’re digging quite a hole, and it’s getting large and frightening- we’ll get to fear later, but fear also suggests that something is not to our advantage. Despair, then, acknowledges a hole. However, in the interest of fitting in with our social schemas, we like to deny despair. Well, that denies that you’re in a hole. You keep digging. The hole gets bigger, until you can’t help but acknowledge the hole. There is despair. So, we fear it. We fear being in the hole. We don’t want despair, because we don’t want to be in the hole. However, we cannot get out of the hole without acknowledging it, and we can’t acknowledge the hole without acknowledging and feeling despair.

Do not fear despair. All emotions have a purpose, and despair is no exception. Instead of running from it, approach it. What does your despair tell you? What change do you need to make? What will happen if you make this change? How can you find the courage to do so?

These are major questions, and can be difficult to determine for yourself. If you struggle, talk to someone. Choose someone who can be present with you in despair. If you don’t have one, don’t be afraid to seek help. We will discuss stigmas of counseling in a later post, but understand that a counselor has the ability to walk with you when someone else either can’t or you do not have someone you would like to walk with you, for whatever reason.

Learn to walk with your despair. Learn from your despair. It will allow it to quiet and then vanish. What replaces it is strength and growth.

Until next time,