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  • Writer's pictureDayna Sharp, LCSW

How to Talk to Kids about Tragedies (And How to Cope Yourself)

Updated: Oct 30, 2018

Our history is full of violence, yet at the same time, it feels like there are more and more tragedies happening everyday. As mass shootings in schools, public places and places of worship seem to have become a near-regular occurrence, and social media has illuminated on-going violence against people of color, we are collectively realizing that we are not completely safe. And that's not an easy realization to sit with--for ourselves, or for our children.

Navigating the Unthinkable

1. Limit Exposure to News. Use your best judgment to balance being an informed citizen vs. drowning in bad news. Try to read the news, as opposed to watching it on television, which is more likely to be sensationalized and intentionally emotionally-evocative. Counter-balance the negativity by mindfully seeking out evidence of good news.

For children, try to restrict news programs completely. Supervise kids on tv and on computers, ipads, etc. Check out news outlets especially for kids, like Newsela and positive news like The Good News Network.

2. Use Math to Help You Cope. Yes, you read that right--math. While it does FEEL like these kinds of tragedies occur regularly, consider them in proportion to all the times, schools, places of worship, etc. that they haven't occurred. Keep that in mind.

3. Listen and Keep It Simple. If kids do hear about tragedies and bring them up, make time to hear what they have to say. Validate their feelings--this is scary stuff! Gently correct any misinformation that they may have.

4. Look for the Helpers. You may have heard this before, thanks to Mr. Rogers and social media, but it's true. The message for kids is this: Sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes people do bad things. BUT MOST of the time we are safe. (Now's a good time to return to the Math discussion!) And there are so many people helping and protecting you. Name them.

5. Emphasizing Safety. Go through all the ways that the adults in your child's life are working to keep them safe. Do they practice safety drills at your child's school? Talk about it. Draft a safety plan for your home, if it comforts your child.

6. Be the Helper. Find ways to take action, whether it be protesting, writing government officials, attending a candlelight ceremony, starting a fundraiser, etc.

7. Lean on Your Spirituality. What do you believe about our time here on Earth? What do you believe about death/after life? Engage in prayer or meditation for yourself, for and with your children, and for the greater world. Use the stories embedded in your spirituality/religion to emphasize that most of the time, we are safe. Most of the time, people are good.

8. Read Stories about Overcoming. Read books and watch movies about people who have overcome amazing odds. Little Red Riding Hood (and other fairy tales), Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles, and Swimmy by Leo Lionni are a few good stories for kids. Sesame Street offers online healing stories and resources for many topics including Incarceration and Trauma. Most Disney movies also offer a narrative about danger and overcoming--you can use these to talk about danger, courage and resilience.

9. Share your Own Stories of Resilience. Maybe you have a cultural or ethnic background that supports a story of courage and overcoming. Maybe your ancestors have survived through diaspora, slavery, holocausts, war, famine, etc. Perhaps your grandparents struggled with learning disabilities that they had to work hard to overcome. Talk about the battles of your ancestors, and remind kids that such a resilience, that power, is in their genes.

10. Take Good Care of Yourself! No matter what is happening in the world, kids feel safe when their caregivers feel safe. Remember the movie "Life is Beautiful"? Do what you need to do to take care of yourself! If your own trauma is being evoked, it is okay to let someone you trust talk to your kids, whether it be a teacher, a relative or a friend.

How do we put the unspeakable into words? With love, care and determination. Because sharing the stories of our lives is the only way to thrive through them.


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