Talking About Tragedies With Our Children

Emily McMason


Submitted by Emily McMason of Evolving Parents

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Emily McMason is a parenting coach in Olympia. Photo credit: Amy Christiensen Nielsen

Columbine. Sandy Hook Elementary. Now Marysville-Pilchuck High School. Whenever we learn of tragic events in the news, it is challenging to know how to talk about them with our children. When these events occur close to home, it intensifies our worry. We worry about what to say. We worry because we don’t want to say anything at all. So how do we help children navigate what is going on in moments when our own humanity feels vulnerable?

No matter your role in the life of a child—as parent, educator, neighbor, caregiver—know that how you speak, how you listen, how you help, will make the difference in helping them through this. Here’s how:

Tread lightly. It is tempting as the story unfolds to follow every moment on the news and social media. Don’t. Turn it off. Older kids are getting fatigued into numbness and youngsters often think the replay images are fresh attacks.

Talk even though it’s tough. We hope that if we don’t bring it up, our children won’t know what happened. Yet once they are school aged, if we don’t speak up, they will hear the news from a hundred other sources. Don’t fret about the words you use, simply start the conversation. State your truth, “This is hard for me to tell you…”

Speak in sound bites. Give children brief facts and information. Then listen. Listen to their confusion, questions and comments. Follow their lead. Give them space to weep and wonder. Listen for the emotions that are under their words, assure them that all of their feelings matter. Let them to know that you are here. That together you are bigger and stronger than any disaster. That you will be present for them, no matter how overwhelming life feels.

Stay the course. We all thrive on routine, and this is especially true in times of trauma. Keep children on their regular schedules.

See the love. Show children how many responders there are. Doctors, nurses, emergency personnel, teachers, faith leaders, community members—every child involved is supported by a dozens of adults. As Mister Rogers reminded us:  “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

Look at each step. Yes, news reports will focus on injury and death. But we can talk about their life, and all the days each person had before the tragedy. We can see all the people who loved them, and whom they loved. Talk about how, even after someone has died, they are not gone. They are within us.

Find the sacred sweat. Look for those who need support. It may mean donating resources, time or expertise. Help your kids find ways to contribute. From drawing a picture to holding a vigil to starting a fund for families, when we give of ourselves, we learn we are capable. When we realize we can overcome, our resiliency for future events is stronger.

Emily McMason is a personal and parent coach in Olympia. For more information about this, or other parenting issues, you can reach Emily at (360) 207-4708 or visit her website, Evolving Parents.


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