When disasters, both natural and man-made occur, parents are faced with the challenge of discussing tragic events with their children. Although these might be difficult conversations, they are important and necessary. Always remember, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to talk to your child about traumatic events. However, here are a few tips that you might find helpful:
• Remain calm and reassuring – create an environment where children will feel comfortable asking questions.
• Always answer a child’s questions truthfully with simple answers. You don’t need to go into more detail than necessary, but lying to your children or making up facts will ultimately confuse them. Eventually, when find out the truth about what happened, they may struggle with trusting you in the future.
• You may be asked to repeat your answers several times. Be consistent in your reply, and realize that your repetitive answers are reassuring your child’s “need to know” and building upon their sense of security.
• Children often feel out of control when disasters occur. Keeping with a familiar routine is very important when trying to reestablish the security of feeling in control.
• If your child asks a question that you do not know the answer to, it’s OK to say “I don’t know.”
• Acknowledge and normalize your child’s thoughts feelings and reactions. Help children understand why they feel this way.
• Encourage kids to talk about disaster related events on their terms. Never force a child to ask a question or to talk about an incident until he/she is ready.
• Reassure your child that many people out there are helping those who are hurting. You may want to let your child make a card for someone who is suffering. Giving to those in need of support allows a child to feel like he/she can make a difference in helping out with a terrible situation.
• Keep your child away from watching news stations and listening to radio where the disaster is being discussed and replayed. Sensationalizing the events that have occurred will only upset and confuse your child further.
• Promote positive coping and problem solving skills. Remember – You are your child’s coping instructor. Your children are very interested to how your respond to local and national events. They also may be listening to every word you say when you discuss these events with other adults.
• Emphasize children’s resiliency. Fortunately, most children, even those who are exposed to trauma, are quite resilient.
• Children who are preoccupied with questions and concerns about safety should be evaluated by a trained mental health professional. If your child suffers from sleep disturbances, anxiety, recurring fears about death, or severe separation anxiety from parents, contact your school counselor and/or pediatrician.
• Strengthen friendship and peer support and foster supportive relationships–There is strength in numbers!
• Take care of your own needs. In order to be there for others, you have to take care of yourself.
• Advanced preparation and immediate response will help with healing and coping. All schools have safety plans in place that are continually being evaluated and updated. Explain to your child that this is a good thing.
Always Remember: You are your child’s coping instructor!
For more information on this topic, check out “Grief is Like a Snowflake.” at www.juliacookonline.com.