How to Talk to Children about Community Tragedies
When we hear about a tragedy in our own community involving violence and loss of life our sense of security is often shaken and our worries for ourselves and those we love can become sharply increased. When the violence has been at the hands of someone who should have been trustworthy the spiritual and psychological challenges are greatest.
Tragedies involving the death of children cause our deepest emotions to be stirred and, just when we most need it, we may feel a diminishing in our sense of trust and faith. If there are children in our families or if we work with children, we are called upon to offer explanation and reassurance when we may be feeling most vulnerable ourselves. Fear and grief can cause us to simply want to close our eyes, flee from the disturbing news and events and hope to shield children from painful knowledge.
We may find ourselves wanting to withdraw from ordinary activities and even prevent our children from venturing away from us, finding ourselves tempted to convey to children, "Stay home with me, don't go anywhere." We may be consumed with questions about how the tragedy could have been prevented and wonder, "Could this happen to me? To my child?" On the other hand, we want our children to feel safe and confident and we want to feel reassured ourselves. There is no way to deny the pain and confusion such tragedies stir yet there are some suggestions and guidelines that we believe can prove useful in helping ourselves and the children in our lives to cope with their feelings and return to a sense of trusting, hopeful engagement in the world. We can find ways to help one another to fulfill our Jewish commitment to choosing life even in the face of loss.
When tragic community events are all over the media, much as we might hope our children will not hear of them, we need to be prepared to answer questions and provide reassurance.
So what can you do and say?
- Spend extra time with children and limit access to media—Speaking with a trusted adult who can listen and provide age appropriate responses is far better than hearing from peers or news reporters. Taking care of ourselves also means avoiding allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed and traumatized by repeatedly listening and viewing the details of an upsetting, terrifying event.
- Allow children to tell you what they have heard and ask questions. Allow them to express their feelings. Don't provide more information than requested and avoid gory details unless they bring them up. Even when they do mention such things, the conversation can be gently steered to a less frightening place by acknowledging that these things are true, frightening and disturbing but also very rare. Provide correct information about what has happened if you hear distortions. If you sense a child has heard something and is not speaking about it, gentle questioning about whether anything may be worrying them or provision of opportunity to draw or show their concerns in other ways can be helpful.
- Be aware of how children of different ages may respond to the situation:
The youngest children need simply to have the tragedy acknowledged if they have heard of it. They need to be assured that they will be safe and that the grown ups in their life are all working to make sure it doesn't happen again. If they know it was someone who should have been trusted be prepared to be patient if they seem more fearful and need to be helped to re-establish trust. Protect them as much as possible from hearing too much that they will not understand. Continue routines such as regular meals, baths and bedtime stories, visits to relatives. Young children especially need the structure that adds to security-but the rest of us benefit from reliable routine. Be alert to increased separation problems, increased tearfulness or defiance, sleep or toileting problems. Provide toys and art materials to allow the child to express what he thinks happened in non-verbal ways.
School aged children often will have heard more about the actual events. Because they grasp more facts we can forget they are still kids and need to be made to feel as secure as possible. Answer questions and be honest but try to be optimistic explaining the rarity of such violence, the influence of mental illness, drugs, alcohol or even factors we do not understand. Stress the actions our tradition and society encourage to try to prevent such events from happening. Do not be alarmed if they speak of ways they would have prevented such an event or how they would use super powers or violence to keep themselves safe. It is natural for them to imagine how they could prevent themselves from being victimized and it helps them to feel powerful when they feel helpless. On the other hand, stress that it is not the fault of children or family members that this terrible event has happened. If they knew the children involved help them to remember them. Do help them to return to conversations about concerns limited and focus on the day to day-school, family news, hobbies and shared activities. They want most of all to forget about grown up concerns and get on with the business of school and play.
Teens are most likely to have the most details and have the most difficulty seeking the help they need in processing something so disturbing. They want to seem independent and not to need their parents yet such events may stir strong feelings of helplessness and fear. They do not want their independence challenged and yet need protection and reassurance. Their dramatic and not so nuanced ways of expressing themselves may cause adults to recoil! In one moment they may seem altruistic and idealistic and deeply concerned over tragedy and loss of life, at other times they may seem indifferent and much more involved with their music, clothes and social life. Some may speak heatedly about retaliating or blame adults for not showing more strength of response, others may accuse adults of over-reacting. They may fear becoming victims of violence themselves; they may also feel loss of control of their own aggression. Desperately wishing the world to make sense they are also old enough to recognize when it seems not to be safe or reliable. In short, teens may seem very mature at one moment, more childish at the next and really need patience and tolerance for their often sharply changing reactions.
Some teens may simply withdraw and not express how hurt or threatened they may feel. Others may seem defiant and indifferent, covering their concerns with a veneer of self-sufficiency and rebelliousness. Adolescence is always a challenging time. We do best to resist the temptation of turning our kids into confidantes, seeking more support from them than is fair. We also need not shelter them, depriving them of the opportunity to understand situations that affect them and their families and communities. It is very helpful to teens to offer them avenues for constructive action, whether it is involvement in efforts to fight violence, mental illness or efforts to help a specific family that has been affected or raising money for organizations that promote tolerance and understanding. It is reasonable to set limits if kids are yelling or promoting irresponsible action but important to allow them reasonable expression of what they feel about what has occurred.
Since teens can be given to black and white thinking and to be overcome by particular events it is important to help them to see all of the good in the world when they have the most doubt; to help them to notice the love and concern being shown to the family that has been affected, the efforts of police, clergy, congregation and communal organizations to prevent future tragedies. Supporting trust and idealism while recognizing and acknowledging the reasons for doubt and fear really help. Don't press teens to speak about the situation more than they choose and try to respect each teen's way of coping while leaving extra opportunities for talking to parents and other caring adults about ordinary events and concerns.?
- Help children and teens of all ages to use our Jewish tradition of taking positive constructive action in the face of tragedy; help them to honor memory through acts of kindness and repair of our world. Everyone feels better when they can do something effective and positive in the face of a situation that has made them feel grief and helplessness. Some ideas are making condolence cards and writing letters to families who have experienced tragedies, collecting money for organizations that work to prevent tragedies as a form of tzedakah, participating in religious rituals like prayer, lighting candles in memory of someone who has died, attending memorial or funeral services. Our tradition also encourages honoring memory by studying something that inspires positive action, contributing to causes that reflect the interests of the person who died and also participating in positive activities that remind us of the person.
- Provide opportunities for spiritual and communal support. Even when we don't have the answers most of us are helped by drawing together with community members to affirm our belief in goodness, restraint, compassion and justice. We and our children may have questions about how to have faith in God in the face of tragedy. Some find solace in the idea of God as a consoler and a guider toward right action and others in the hope that the person who has died is now with God. Yet we do not have to resolve all of these questions to draw together to find strength from a tradition that affirms that we can and should take strive to treat one another justly and that we should comfort, support and inspire one another at times of tragedy and loss. In this way we truly remind one another and teach our children that love and life are very precious and worth sustaining.
- Know when and where to seek professional help. When over the course of many weeks a child continues to show a great deal of fear and anxiety, is more withdrawn or provocative and defiant, or continues to be involved in repetitive play with themes related to the violent event it is useful to seek consultation with a mental health professional. Of course, if a child shows serious distress and cannot be consoled, exhibits or threatens violence towards himself or others or is paralyzed by fear and anxiety help should be sought immediately. When parents find themselves struggling to re-establish trust or overcome by anxiety about their own or children's wellbeing they too can benefit from help in overcoming trauma. Social service agencies, mental health clinics, school guidance counselors, private mental health practitioners and pediatricians may all be helpful. Specific programs for children and families who have been affected even indirectly by traumatic violence. can be particularly helpful.