How I Talk To My Kids About Tragedy
This past week has been a whirlwind of crazy events in the headlines, on our newsfeeds, and in conversations happening around us. Between the school shooting in Florida - and here locally, a little girl that was kidnapped (and thankfully, subsequently found) – I think it’s safe to say that there is an air of fear and concern that is all around us after events such as these.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
I am asked on a fairly consistent basis how I talk about these things with my own kids (ages 12 and 9), one of which deals with a severe anxiety disorder which we work hard not to inflame on purpose.
So, I wanted to offer some thoughts based on the things that I do with my own kids.
Don’t put your head in the sand.
I want my kids to be informed and not ignorant, so generally we talk about things pretty head on. Maybe not the day that they happen, but at some point soon after (and generally after I’m able to at least control my own feelings about it), we definitely talk through the big stuff that happens.
Part of this is because I can recognize that it’s better that they hear facts from their parents rather than bits and pieces of what has happened from other kids – at school, on the playground, etc.
What this means is that I try to gather as many facts as I can before we talk about it.
It’s important that these are facts, not opinions.
Saying: There was a school shooter in Florida, and some kids and adults were killed. We don’t really know why it happened yet, but he’s been caught and the police have the situation under control now.
Not: There was this crazy kid in Florida that shot up his old school and killed a bunch of people with a gun that he probably shouldn’t have been able to get anyway.
The point is to understand that kids don’t need to hear the political pieces of the discussion, unless they have specific questions, which we will talk more about below.
Feel your feelings about it, and let them feel theirs.
Feeling angry, sad, or fearful is completely normal in reaction to these events. Feel all of those feelings, don’t bury them. Also, tell your kids that it’s ok to feel this way too!
Let’s talk about fear for just a second, though.
Fear is a feeling, and you have to watch how much of it controls your actions.
Choosing to not go into public situations without any specific threat because you are fearful of them is excessive.
Pulling your kids from school because you’re worried about school shootings is excessive.
If you are modeling healthy fear, you walk through those feelings and you continue to live your life anyway.
I am afraid to death of heights – but last year I walked through my fear and rode a roller coaster with my kids.
I am afraid of snakes and alligators, but I walk through those fears when I walk through the woods with my family, or walk near lakes that I know they live in.
I talk openly about those fears – my children know that I’m afraid of those things. In fact, they know I’m scared of a lot of things. I'm no superhero.
But for the most part, I also let my kids know that I am up for a challenge and will walk through it if it means living my life in a more full way – with them, or for myself.
Remind them why news is news.
So let’s stop talking about snakes and alligators and get back to the topic.
The truth of the matter is that school shootings and kidnappings make the news because they are outrageous happenings.
They are things that stir up emotion – but also! And this is the key – they are things that (in the scheme of things) don’t happen very often. They are surprising to us.
Yes – they are horrible and they are tragic, and the frequency of them is increasing, I'm not here to argue, so don’t misread this.
But they are also things that, statistically, aren’t going to happen to you, and aren't going to happen to your kids. And that is the point that kids need to be reminded of.
Their schools are generally safe, their homes (keeping in mind the local break-in/kidnapping) are generally safe. They are safe in public.
You are not lying when you tell them this, even though it makes you feel like you are.
The news makes it sound as though these things are happening in every school, and in every neighborhood, and in every home. But they are not. Things are big news because we just can’t believe it.
(Sidenote: Remember, also, that this is an article regarding having these conversations with your children. So while I say that, I do believe that we can – and should – do a whole list of things in our country to move forward these very adult conversations and provoke action in one way or another. Don’t use this as my permission for all of us adults to stay stagnant with the status quo.)
Finally, over the years of having very real and factual conversations about the world around us, my kids have learned that we won’t lie to them. And that we won’t sugar coat things. And that we have very real feelings about what is happening in the world, too.
So they have learned that we are a safe place to explore their concerns about things and get the truth. If they hear something on the news, they will ask us what happened. They often ask us how we feel about it.
And sometimes, as they’ve begun to mature, they ask what can be done about it.
I mentioned earlier that I don’t want my kids to be ignorant. That being said – I try very hard to hide my bias and explain all political viewpoints evenly when asked.
Mostly, my kids don’t ask my personal views anyway. Instead, they want to know “why” things are the way that they are.
So I make a point to be able to argue for all sides – just like I was taught in debate class - and I let them come to their own conclusions.
And if I don’t know the answer, we research. We find the “what” and all of the reasons, and all of the arguments “why” things are the way that they are.
And I’m almost always surprised by the logical conclusion that they end up coming to – sometimes with reasons and facts that I haven’t ever considered.
Bottom line – talk to your kids about this stuff, and talk about it from a lens of facts, careful not to provoke, but understanding that these are scary things, so fear around them is normal. Talk about that fear and what it means.
If you or your children are struggling with intense fear in response to these things, or you need some additional support in having these conversations with your kids, reach out! I’d love to help you get these conversations going in your home.
Brooke Williams, MA, LPC, is a counselor licensed to practice in South Carolina. She specializes in making relationships thrive – whether working on marriages, parenting, friendships, or conflict in the workplace. You can read more about her here.