Talking to children about tragedy is a job most parents would love to avoid. If only our children did not need to hear about things like last week’s horrific typhoon in the Philippines.
But of course, they do hear. And they are full of questions. Could something like this happen to me? What’s going to happen to the children in the Philippines? Can I do anything to help the kids I see on TV?
Here are 8 tips for talking to your child about a tragic situation.
1) Start by listening.
Find out what your kids already know. You can then respond in an age-appropriate way. The aim is not to worry them with the devastating details, but to protect them from misinformation they may have heard from friends or disturbing images they may have seen on television or the web.
2) Provide clear, simple answers.
Limit your answer to the question asked and use simple language. You don’t want to raise issues that they may not even have considered.
3) If you don't know the answer, admit it.
If your child asks a question that you can't answer, tell them so. Then do some research to try and help them sort it out. If they ask “Why did this have to happen?” don't be afraid to say “I don't know.” If you are part of a faith community, the reassurance offered there can be invaluable in helping your child sort through the awful truth that awful things happen.
4) Follow media reports or online updates privately.
Young children in particular are easily traumatized, and seeing or hearing about the horrifying details of the quake are more than they can cope with. Adults, too, should ensure they are dealing with their own emotions by talking to others, so they can continue to respond well to their children’s need.
5) Concentrate on making them feel safe.
When tragedies occur, children wonder if the same event could happen in their hometown. If it was an act of nature that could not be repeated in your area, tell children that. Placing themselves in the situations of victims is not all bad—it is a sign of empathy, an essential life skill, but watch for signs of excessive worrying.
6) Give children creative outlets.
Some children may not be prepared to speak about what they have heard, but may find drawing or other creative activities helpful to deal with their emotions and stress. Their drawings can be helpful starting points for conversation.
7) Model involvement and compassion.
Tell your child that, as a family, you will be helping the people in Haiti by giving a donation to a reputable charity such as World Vision.
8) Give your child a chance to be involved.
Being involved in the solution will help relieve some of their anxiety. Invite them to contribute to the family’s gift by giving something out of their piggy bank or savings account.