When children are exposed to a tragedy, parents are often at a loss as to how to address it. How much do I share? How do I help them with their own feelings when I have so many of my own? Here are some tips about child development and how you can talk to your kids about a tragedy, whether it be personal, national or world-wide.
How experiences are stored
Our brains store our past experiences a bit like a filing cabinet. As we go through life and encounter all the ups and downs along the way, we create more and more file folders within that cabinet. Information about our experiences can be stored systematically or chaotically.
For example, childhood trauma can have lasting effects when the memories of those experiences get stored in a wrong folder or create a new folder of their own to which non-traumatic events are later added. We need to be careful at times of tragedy to regulate the quality and quantity of information that gets filed and consider if our children even have a place to put it. This is further complicated by innate personality and temperament of each unique child.
Watch your mood and your tone
If you have very young children, they may have no awareness of the tragedy that has come to your doorstep. You may have strong feelings of anger, grief, sadness, or fear but the place for expressing these emotions is with friends, family, pastors and counselors. Your kids depend on you to be their protector and comforter. You can say something like, “Mommy is feeling sad and mad right now, but I am not sad or mad with you.”
Regroup with God
Tragedies have a way of knocking us off our foundation of faith and trust. But don’t stay there. Spend some time with the Lord. He is still on His throne. He is still sovereign. He still sees and loves each one of us. You will not have a clear mind or heart to address this with your kids if your assurance of God’s faithfulness is in question. You don’t have to hide your faith struggles from you children, however. They need to see that your faith is real and authentic.
Assess your child
Is your child highly sensitive? Does he have a history of trauma? Does he struggle with fears and insecurities with regard to safety? Is he just too young? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, limit their exposure to the tragedy you are facing. That includes protecting them from phone calls where they could be listening in or TV or news feeds. Keep any information that you do choose to share brief and accurate, but general.
Assure your child
If you have determined that your child can handle learning about what your family is going through, share, watch or read the news together. Keep your eye on their facial expressions and body language as you do. Fearful eyes, clenched teeth and fists will communicate the truth, even if they are saying, “I’m fine!” You can simply say, “This is hard to hear/watch, isn’t it? Bad things happen, but that does not mean that God is not in control. Let’s stop here and talk about it.”
Be open to their questions and pause before you reply. Check your heart: are you using the discussion to express your feelings or are you choosing to share to what is appropriate for your specific child? Be honest but mindful. Remember, your child does not have the same “file folders” as you. They need a place to put this information and it is your job to help them do that in a healthy way. You can say, “You might be feeling nervous about this and a little unsafe. But you are safe with me. I will always protect you.” Also keep in mind that your discussion of any distressing event can (and often should) be done in stages. Go slow with what you discuss and expose them to, monitoring their affect and body language.
Talk about God’s view of the situation
The Bible calls His followers to reflect His image by hating evil and loving what is good (Amos 5:15). When we see are faced with a personal tragedy, violence or violation, we need to name them for what they are and condemn them. You can share hope from John 16:33: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Yes there is tragedy and evil in this world, but in the end, God wins.
“Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.” 2 Thessalonians 3:16