Talking about Tragedy with Children
I normally start posts on here and social media with how excited I am to share something. I'm not excited about this post, yet I am honored. I am honored to be sharing tips for talking about tragedy with children as well as strategies for self-care (mainly through yoga) with a local Department of Social Services and at the TriCities Moms Wear Orange event at Guncotton Coffee and Gallery this weekend. Tragedy is a part of life. Death comes up sooner in children's lives than we expect it to. And yet, I should not be writing this post in part in response to yet another mass shooting in the USA. Last Friday, HG and I went for a walk. She found a worm that was dead. It was the first time we really talked about death. We noticed it wasn't moving. Sometimes we move worms to the grass and sprinkle them with water. I told her that wouldn't work this time, that the worm was dead, kind of like asleep forever. We covered it in grass, and she was ready to move on. That is what this post should be in response to. It should be about me sharing how my little one and I responded to the worm dying. How we will one day talk about my grandmother who died just days before HG's birthday and whose funeral was HG's first outing other than to the doctors. But that is not all this post is about.
Later that evening, I got a text about the shooting in Virginia Beach. Twelve lives lost. I started my first week of long-term subbing in NC the week that the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School occurred. My time teaching was punctuated with conversations about how to respond to school shootings, practice lock down drills (kind of a joke since our school building was a paper trailer), and suggestions of arming teachers. As teachers, we act "in-loco-parentis", we play the role of parent (in limited ways, mainly related to safety) and teacher while children are in our care. Whether we're trying to teach students science or study skills, reminding them not to run off to Starbucks while on a field trip, sitting in a cramped classroom for hours while we wait for a tornado drill to lift, we see and hear a lot from our kiddos. They talk to us about a lot. If we are lucky, we have full time guidance counselors at our school who can actually take time out of creating student schedules to see students struggling with emotional turmoil and mental health issues, and yet, I also learned early on that I needed to know what to say and not to say in overwhelming situations before I could get kiddos to the right resources and people. Language is powerful. What we say, and what we choose not to say, has a lasting impact on those around us. If I choose not to address tragedy, I am choosing to show that sadness, anger, and fear do not have a place in my classroom, yoga class, home, etc. This then adds unnecessary challenges for kiddos trying to navigate big feelings. It also may prompt older kiddos to find information on their own, without an adult to help them process it. So then, how do we talk about tragedy with children? Below you will find some suggestions and resources to help you come up with a plan that works best for you in your family, classroom, etc.
Build a tool box before tragedy occurs. The time to learn to process emotions, to ask for help, to learn to care for oneself, is not when everything seems to have blown up in your face. Here are some simple practices to begin now:
Notice and name emotions. We cannot control our immediate emotional responses, yet we can control our reactions to them. When we are able to name our emotions, we have the power and time to choose our reactions. As parents of even very young children, our children feel our emotions. They can tell when we are stressed or upset. I know HG can feel when I'm feeling anxious and "rushy" now - her immediate response is to move at a snail's pace. This might sound like, "Baby, daddy is feeling angry because the dishwasher is broken again and work was dumb today". Make faces in the mirror to try on different feelings. Write feelings on cards, act them out, and guess how someone is feeling.
Honor small tragedies. Life is full of small tragedies - a worm dying, a friend being short with us, a bad grade when we worked hard, losing a toy we like, slamming our finger in a door. When we take the time to notice and name how we and our children respond to these small tragedies, we help them build the skills to respond to larger tragedies.
Practice self-care. Try a few different ways to practice self-care and find what sticks for each family member. Encourage using these strategies regularly. Some self-care practices include: yoga; dancing to silly songs; prayer; journaling; walking; running; time outside; snuggling a loved one or toy; drinking tea. As a family or class, strategies that promote well-being can be woven into the day. These include brain breaks, establishing a space when quiet time is needed, filling a bucket with scraps of paper with what you're thankful for or joyful about. (See the pictures below for our joy bucket, two affirmations from
, and two books we love about feelings and community.)
When tragedies occur, dig in to the resources and skills above and build on. When faced with tragedy, it is important to remember to put on our own oxygen masks on, to use an airplane analogy. Keep pushing with self-care so you have the brain space to enter into tough conversations with kids with calm and patience. If you are having trouble starting the conversation, I recommend using a children's book. You can do this with teenagers too. Especially if your family is directly impacted by tragedy, consider professional help. You can check out Give an Hour for affordable mental health care or talk to a medical provider. Once you've made sure everyone has oxygen flowing, here are some tips for talking about tragedy:
Continue to notice and name emotions. The appropriate information to share with a toddler might simply be, "Mommy is sad because people got hurt". By sharing how we feel, we don't leave kiddos guessing about their role in how we are acting. Ask your children how they feel or name what you see if they are young. The book The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld is a great one for talking about how we might feel and respond after tragedies.
Keep it simple and honest. When you are talking about tragedy with your kids, stick to the facts but keep it simple. You might prefer to watch/read/listen to the news and then decide what, precisely, to share with your children. If you watch the news, do so together. This might sound like, "A person hurt a lot of people who were at work" or "A person killed people in their offices". Avoid saying things like, "A big bad man with a huge gun" etc. Children generalize and they might then assume all big men or police officers with guns are unsafe.
List the ways your community and your family are working to keep people safe. Discuss who your child should turn to if they ever feel less than safe.
Embrace grief and sadness, while looking for joy. Grief and sadness are a connection to those lost and a motivating force for people working for change. Young children are at a stage in development when things are black and white. They may fear that their joy means that they've forgotten a loved one. Share that we can still find joy while honoring loved ones and neighbors harmed. Some ways to do this might be to talk about sadness as a pebble. You can carry your sadness pebble in your pocket, but you can also add happy pebbles. If you are directly impacted by loss, create a memorial ritual for remembering those harmed or lost. I know a teacher who simply put out art supplies after a classmate died and told students they could create, read, sit quietly, or come talk to her. Remember, keep it simple.
Work for change. With younger kids in the toddler years, we might feel like we are hiding a lot of pain from them. Finding a constructive activity to do together can give us the space to heal while modeling positive citizenship. This can be as simple as making get well cards for neighbors, writing lovely notes on the sidewalk in chalk, or baking cookies and dropping them off for first responders. With older kids, you can begin to talk about how they might vote for change. You can discuss more of the reasons behind tragedies and how to notice red flags and provide resources to friends we are concerned about. Reading the book The Breaking News by Sarah Lynne Reul might be perfect to spur some community action!
Find a pdf of these tips and more, including a book list, here.
Now, go vote for gun regulation reform, affordable mental healthcare, funding for school counselors, etc so I can write my usual enthusiastic posts and stop being terrified for my kiddo and all our children, please. And, if your family has ways that you remember lost family members or pets, books you read when you have big feelings, etc, please share using #watchwonderbloom.
Additional resources for addressing tragedy with children:
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: All kinds of resources to address a variety of types of trauma
Talking to Children about Tragedies and Other News Events: This resource has specific ideas for children at different ages and for children with different abilities