We agonize over how to talk to our kids about tragedy. We grapple with comprehending these types of events ourselves, and the idea that we can somehow find the words that would make the events reasonable for a child to integrate seems daunting at best.
There are numerous posts and articles swirling around that give advice on how to talk to kids about incidents such as the Boston tragedy. Turn off the TV, offer just enough, answer questions but don’t add gratuitous details, let them know they are safe. Rather than doing all the talking, I like to focus on asking three main questions to find out what kids need in times like these:
- What have you heard about it?
- What do you think about it?
- What do you wonder about it?
What have you heard about it? Finding out what kids know and what they already have floating around in their heads is an important first step. If your child is away from you for any part of the day, it is impossible to know what others may or may not have told them. Finding out where they are at is a great place to start. Rumors, exaggerations, dramatizations grow and swirl and take on a life of their own. Kids build on these ideas in their imaginations. Helping them sort through all the thoughts they are already having is important. If we just add to what is already in their heads, rather than helping them sort through it, we may just be making things more complicated for them.
What do you think? Before you share what you think with your child, ask them what they think. Get an idea for where they are at emotionally and then go from there. Don’t assume that they are feeling a certain way or thinking certain thoughts. Connecting with them based on their thoughts and feelings will be much more meaningful than assuming and adding to the confusion.
What do you wonder? Answer their questions as they have them. Not before. Kids will ask for information they are ready to handle. Anything more will at best go over their heads and at worst overwhelm them. Take it slow.
Allow their lives to go back to normal. Turn off the radio and the TV. Talk about the event openly when they bring it up, but do your own processing away from them. Respect the child’s privilege to have their world stay as protected from the information as possible. It is a privilege they won’t always have, and one we should strive to keep as long as possible. If your child’s life was touched directly, go from there. In short, give them what they need and not more.
But even with all of this, we still struggle with what to say. And it is important that we are deliberate with our response because the story we tell matters. The narrative that we tell about our lives, our selves, our world defines how we see our lives, our selves, our worlds. If we give the good more attention than the bad, our narrative, our experience and, hence, our future can be hopeful rather than bleak.
We could spend our energy talking about the tragedy. The fear, the pain, the devastation. But after every tragedy we can also talk about the countless stories of human connection, inspiration and hope that arise. People loving and caring and healing and helping. This is the true human spirit. One person wreaks havoc. But that is not the narrative our hearts need to embrace. 1000 people save lives. 1000 people react with love and grace and compassion. That is the story I want my children to know. That is the story I want them to connect to. That is the story I want to resonate with them and define their world, their future.
There will always be the one who brings pain. The sad truth is that there will be more events like these in our children’s future. But for every act of pain, there are 1000 points of light.
So when my children ask, I will tell that story. I will look for the articles and stories that focus on the acts of hope and inspiration. And I will hope that their narrative will evolve to embrace the positive even in the midst of such negative events. Because maybe, if we can help a new generation of adults build a narrative of connection, the acts of pain will fade into the past.