Talking To Children About Tragedies

Today is September 11, and many of our minds are circling back to stories of tragedy, loss, and grief. My heart feels heavy, and it isn’t just this singular event, or the wars that have followed, but devastation around the world: the haunting picture of the two-year-old boy who drowned while trying to flee Syria with his family, stories marking the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Facebook posts from friends doing relief work in Nepal following the earthquake.

This morning, I read an article in Brain, Child magazine about what it was like to be a mother in New York on the morning of 9/11, and I once again feel overwhelmed by the staggering hurt and pain that exists in the world. Reconciling the gap between my life and the lives in the stories I have recently encountered is impossible.

I write these sentences on my computer, in my apartment in Switzerland, with food in the refrigerator, and clean water ready at a moment’s notice. The issues concerning me today are a never-ending mountain of laundry, leaving on time to pick my children up from school, and addressing unfinished writing projects on my to-do list.

My life seems so vastly different from the lives I read about that at times, it is hard to connect.

Until images and stories of children remind me that at the heart of these stories are human lives: children, families, communities, nations.

But what about our children? How do we handle trauma with kids?

Presence with children. It is easy for adults to get distracted while waiting for news to unfold. As must as possible, restricting the 24-hour news coverage helps maintain an atmosphere of routine for children. When tragedy strikes, we must work hard to maintain presence with our children. As Susan Buttenwieser writes,

Maybe there is more to being a mom than craft projects and baking. And maybe what your daughter really needs is for you to stay focused on what is right in front of you: her.

Honoring Our Needs. Sometimes, particularly when tragedy strikes close to home, we must spend time on the phone with loved ones or check for news updates. Taking care of ourselves while remaining present with children is sometimes challenging, but we must bring our whole selves, our grieving, worried, or preoccupied selves into those relationships of presence. And when we bring our whole selves into relationship with children, children are remarkably empathetic.

Give age appropriate information in supported environments. When children are met with scary events, it is important that they can trust the adults in their lives to be honest with them.

Be careful about television. Children often interpret television news replays as novel events. Each time they see a plane crash into a building, they think it’s a new plane and a new building. Consider turning to written sources for news updates or wait to watch video clips until you can preview them before children see them.

Let them PLAY!  One of the most powerful things that children can do to process tragedy is to play. Consider how children play “doctor” right after yearly checkups, or “family” when a peer has a new sibling. Add props to dramatic play that assists children in constructing a play world, and then give them time and space to weave a play theme.

Share stories of hope, and find ways for children to be involved. In the face of tragedy, we seek ways to effect change in our neighborhoods and around the world – through acts of financial generosity, or bold hospitality, or radical creativity, or ingenious community building. Find ways to bring children into that process, demonstrating that they can make a difference.

Other helpful resources:

Helping Children Say Goodbye Without Distracting

Recently, I was doing some work with my dear friend, Kelly Matthews, thinking about the challenge that families and educators feel at this time of year with children who feel the pain of good-byes.

We were talking about typical approaches to separation anxiety, and talked of using toys when children are sad…like this:

The family leaves, the child cries, the care provider brings a toy or shakes a rattle:

“You’re okay. Mommy will be back soon. Don’t cry. Come over here and let’s play with this BIG TOWER! WOW! Look at all this COOL ART!” Think sing-songy voice, raised eyebrows, exaggerated smile…

Kelly made a really insightful comment. She said: (more…)