None of us will ever forget where we were, what we were doing, or, most importantly, how we felt when we heard tragic news. Columbine. September 11. Boston. The death of a family member or close friend.
When tragedy strikes, whether on a national scale, in tight-knit communities or within our families, we are often overcome by shock or grief, at a loss for words and unsure of how to process the news. When dealing with one’s own personal reactions, it can be difficult to then figure out how to address tragic news with children or answer their questions.
Experts recommend communicating with your children in age-appropriate ways about tragedy.
“Assessing the developmental maturity of the child is key,” says Dr. Shefali Tsabary, a New York-based clinical psychologist and author of The Conscious Parent. “Having said this, if the child loses a loved one, there is no way to hide the fact. In such situations, letting the child know in advance of the person’s illness and suffering is always better to prepare them before the actual time. However, in times where the death is sudden, there is simply no way to buffer them from the truth.”
Tsabary recommends that parents create a “holding space” for children to express their feelings.
“Children should feel like it is safe and acceptable to cry, be confused and also be angry,” says Tsabary. “They also need to know that their parents will help them negotiate their emotions.”
Denise Durkin, an early childhood mental health consultant in Philadelphia, suggests using the creative arts to process feelings of shock and loss. For example, having a child dictate, write a letter or draw pictures to help process her emotions around a grandparent’s death, for example, can help the child grieve.
“Having siblings and parents join her is loving and supportive and normalizes the loss everyone feels,” says Durkin. “The idea here is to completely honor everything a child feels and provide the space and place for her to go through the various emotions and thought processes.”
“Telling stories about your lost loved one is great for kids of all ages,” adds Durkin.
In the case of national or community tragedies, it’s best not to share the information with younger children who have no connection to the situation or even let them overhear news reports or conversations about it, says Tsabary. “They are unable to process this kind of information,” she explains.
Older, elementary-school aged children may be more likely to hear disturbing news from classmates or teachers at school and have more access to media. Tsabary recommends sharing basic facts with them if the school plans to expose them to the information or their environment makes it inevitable.
“If you feel that they will hear about it from others, then you need to be the one to provide the initial framework,” she adds. “After sixth grade, they are developmentally able to process the facts and you can get into a larger framework.”
Teenagers, who are capable of more sophisticated thinking, may have questions about why these terrible events happen and what they mean for the future.
“With all children, when reading stories or experiencing news of ‘bad people’ who did horrible things, first we help them explore, honor and process their emotions,” says Durkin, who approaches her work from the philosophy that all people are essentially good. “This helps them develop self-knowledge, self-understanding, self-acceptance and, eventually, self-mastery of their emotions – a very important goal of self-regulation.”
Then, Durkin says, it is possible to discuss the events further.
“We can talk about people who do bad things as having an illness in their brains, as in mental illness, and perhaps illness in their hearts, such as experiences of being hurt, that made them close their hearts to themselves and to others for fear of being more hurt,” says Durkin, “and since anger often shields the hurt, this helps explain why some people can behave with such anger and violence.”