Talking to Kids in Times of Tragedy

Dear On Our Sleeves Community, 

I wish we were coming to you to talk about a more positive topic. However, as has been the case far too often in the past few years, current events necessitate a different discussion.

No matter your personal views, the events in Washington, D.C., at the Capitol Building affected all of us to some degree, and children are no different. Civil unrest is not new to our country, especially in the past year, but for reasons beyond the scope of this message, this week's events caused a different kind of distress. As parents and adults who care about children, we would like to think we can shield our children from traumatic events in the world, but that is not the case. Kids hear and see things despite our best efforts to protect them. If you don't address events like this with them, they are left to process on their own and may turn to other unreliable sources.

How do we talk with the children in our lives about scary, violent or otherwise traumatic events they may be exposed to?

  1. Be proactive by making time to talk. If possible, first take time to process the event(s) yourself. Then, ask them what they know or have seen and/or heard. Be ready to listen and not discount what they are telling you. Empathize with their concerns.
  2. Leave the door open for further discussion. Try to ask open-ended questions, such as “How do you feel about that?” “What does that make you think about?” or “Do you have questions about what is happening?”
  3. Encourage them to share their feelings appropriately. Avoid sensationalizing the event(s). Try not to say you are terrified or horrified, even if that’s how you feel. Instead, model statements like “I’m feeling very upset right now,” or “I’m worried for the people affected by this.”
  4. Reassure them in a realistic way. Remind them that your job as a parent or adult in their life is to keep them safe. Let them know you are there to help them understand the situation and get through it.
  5. Know it’s OK to not have all the answers. It’s OK to let the kids in your life know you don’t have all the answers. Look up an answer together, if age appropriate, or tell them you don’t know the answer to their question yet, but you’ll try to find it for them. Most importantly, remember there isn’t a good explanation for events like this.
  6. Focus on the good. Talk about the people in the community you know are helping throughout the event. Talk about their braveness or about the positive changes that could come from the event.
  7. Avoid talking badly about groups of people. This can include political groups, races, religions or countries. Help them understand most events like this are carried out by a very small group of people in relation to the overall population.                                    

This week, at our dinner table with our 8 and 5 year olds, we followed these steps as best we could, given what we knew at the time. In a way, it also helped me process the events because I wanted to make sure I could model that for them.

We need to keep talking with and listening to our children to help them develop into the best humans they can be. Sometimes that means making sense of when bad things happen and learning to cope in healthy ways.

Be well, practice gratitude and act with kindness,

Dr. Parker
Dr. Parker Huston's signature

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