How do you talk to your children about tragedy?

I write this just a few days after the news of yet another act of mass killing in our country. And as I write, I know many adults who care for children  wonder how to talk about difficult and very public events without causing undo fear and anxiety in children. It can be especially difficult when even we, as adults, are trying to figure out what we are feeling and thinking or are struggling with our own fears about the randomness of tragedy.

Jan Kwiatkowski, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant for Aurora Family Service in Milwaukee, WI.

One of the things we know about children is that children respond and tend towards healthy resiliency, when the adults around them are able to be age appropriately honest, as well as, accepting of questions and whatever feelings children are experiencing.  Following are some ideas that might help when and if your child asks questions about the recent shooting in Auroa, CO, or other difficult events within our communities or our families.

Turn off the TV, Xbox, DVD, iPad, or any other distraction. Give your child undivided attention. They need to know that your primary focus is on listening to their questions and thoughts.

Speak using words that your child will understand. It’s important to use accurate language and it’s OK to use words like death and dying. Phrases like “passing away” or “sleeping forever” are confusing for children.

It’s OK for you to admit that you don’t know or don’t understand why some things happen. It’s OK to admit that you might be sad or angry, too. Let you child know that you know how to take care of your feelings in a healthy way.

Teach them how to connect with their feelings in a healthy way. Listen for where your child might be overly fearful.

Children need to know that they don’t have to “over-ride” their feelings and that you will help them learn to manage them. If you journal, teach your child how to put thoughts and feelings on paper, whether in words or pictures. If you are a person who releases feelings through exercise, teach your child how to take a fast walk, or run fast in place for two minutes or blow the stress away in big soap bubbles. Teach your child to listen to quiet music and take some slow, deep breaths.

Check in and see what your child is hearing and understanding. Children can take a while to process and sometimes process in small bits. They may ask 1-2 questions and come back later with more (or not). Follow your child’s lead on how quickly they process.

It’s OK to help them understand that sometimes bad things happen. That’s reality. THE MOST IMPORTANT thing you can do for the children in your care is let them know you love them and that their thoughts and feelings will always be safe with you.

Aurora Family Service helps families overcome challenges, changes and crisis to live well again. We achieve stability and strength for families through counseling, parenting, elder care, financial, career, health and community services.  For more information, visit our website, follow us onFacebook, or call 1-414-342-4560.

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