Teaching Kids To Deal With Tragedy

By Dr. Kristin Seaborg

Credit: MGN Online

Teaching Kids To Deal With Tragedy

December 16, 2013

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

When a story of tragedy appears in the news, I find myself both struggling to understand the magnitude of the event on my own, and also fighting to find a way to frame the event for my children to help them feel safe in this ever-changing world.

So when I watched the coverage of events such as the Boston Marathon bombing or the shooting at Sandy Hook, the reflex nausea gripping my gut was not only for fear and mourning of the injured and dead, but also for grief of our children’s generation who will grow up in an increasingly volatile world. 

And because we live in a world now prone to violence and disruption, I find myself trying to answer the same questions both at home and in the pediatric office: How do I explain the tragedy to my children (or do I explain it to them at all?). How can I make them feel safe? What is the best way to help them know that they are loved and protected while reminding them that they need to make smart choices? 

To find my answers, I went to the best professional resources I could find. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends responding to children in a developmentally appropriate way.  Children are upset by recurrent graphic images of people injured, explosions, or frantic crowds. When children are around, it’s best to turn off the television, computer, and other media devices that can have scary images streaming from the internet with constant replays of the event.

In helping a child process a traumatic event, the most important thing a parent can do is talk with their child. For the younger child, a parent should sit down with them, tell them a really bad thing happened, and it’s important that they talk about it.  Give your child a chance to ask questions about it and answer the questions as openly and honestly as you can. Distance yourself and your family from the event as much as possible and make sure that your child knows that he is safe and protected at home. Ask your child to share their feelings about the event. Parents may want to give an older child a chance to ask their own questions first, since it’s possible that they have many of their own thoughts as they process the event with their peers.

To keep my children from reacting with fear, I remind them of this now-viral quote from the late Mr. Rodgers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'look for the helpers, you will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world."

I think it’s not only important to look for the Helpers – the people on the sidelines who usher victims to calm ground and the heros at Sandy Hook who shepherded children to safety. We can teach our children to be helpers as well. By offering a helping hand to the disabled person at school or by sending a card to the friend in the hospital, tragedy and hardship will never win. This is the message I want my children to hear louder than the echoes of dissent or violence, and these are the principles I pray we can cultivate in the next generation.

Kristin Seaborg is a Wisconsin pediatrician who writes about her experiences and perspective as a pediatrician and a parent of three children on her  blog, Common Sense Motherhood.  To find out more about Dr. Seaborg, you can visit her at her website, www.kristinseaborg.com.

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