Talking to your children about tragedies
Michael Weinberg, PhD, LPC is a Sr. Mgr. in Behavioral Health Services at Banner Thunderbird Medical Center. His office can be reached at (602) 865-5437.
Question: It’s not always possible to shield our children from witnessing or hearing about tragic or violent events, such as what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. How can parents discuss such horrible events with their children?
Answer: Recent shootings and violent events across the country have left many of us upset, concerned, and confused. Trying to explain how or why tragedies like these occur is difficult among adults, let alone having to explain them to children.
Horrific events, like what took place at Sandy Hook, not only impact communities where the events occur, but can impact children and adults thousands of miles away. Further, although deaths in school settings are quite rare, violence is not. In 2010, nearly 830,000 violent incidences among students 12-18 years old were reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a result, parents need to be prepared to talk about tragic and/or violent events with their children.
So how do parents have this discussion with their children? There really is no one answer. What you tell a 6-year-old would likely sound very different from what you say to a 14-year-old. A good place for parents to begin is by asking children questions to gauge what they know, how they may be feeling, and what they may be thinking about. The answers to these questions will help parents hone in on where to steer the conversation. Instead of preparing a planned speech, the child’s specific concerns, thoughts, or feelings about what happened should drive the conversation.
Parents should also know that it’s okay to admit to their children that they are confused and don’t really understand how or why these things happen. Terrible events like these are so far outside our value system and way of thinking that it’s hard to wrap our heads around. Very few people have the skills or experience to work through tragic circumstances. Because of this, another thing parents should recognize is that professional support and resources are available. Whether it’s a local mental health center, a therapist, or counselor, there are specialists and resources which can help children and families work through and cope with tragedy. It is never too early to call for help.