What to Tell Our Children When Our Hearts Break

by | Dec 25, 2012

When a terrible tragedy strikes, as it did recently in a Connecticut kindergarten classroom, our hearts break. We don\’t know how to mend. If we are directly affected by the tragedy, then professional counseling is imperative. But we also need to pay attention to our feelings, however tenuous our connection to a traumatic event. Even if we have only seen reports of the terrible news in the media, how do we heal? How do we help our children to heal?

The extent to which children are affected by a tragedy depends on many factors—age, gender, how close they are to the event, their emotional disposition and so much more. As an adult, you will have to discuss the tragedy with them. Think about what they\’re ready to hear, what they can manage emotionally. Teens are probably able to absorb the whole truth while younger children can process less. The key is to be direct and honest with as calm a demeanor as you can muster. For younger children, you might say something straightforward like, “A bad man shot some children and people are very upset.”

Stick to the truth, but try to reassure them. If you live in a safe neighborhood, you might reference how lucky you and your children are. If you feel it would be helpful, let them know there were survivors who escaped to safety. Tell them how. Talk about the heroes involved. As an adult, you can help children by being available to discuss the incident on their timetable. Everyone, children and adults alike, process at their own pace. It is up to you to listen carefully to children and try to discern their needs, which may change over time.

Be on the alert for physical and emotional reactions that might signal your child is seriously affected. Headaches, stomachaches, nausea or fatigue are red flags that should be investigated. If your usually gregarious child displays a numbness or flatness in his or her emotions, or perhaps withdrawal from normal activities, or even blocking out the event entirely, then you know you should seek professional help.

Beyond that, you can be as helpful as possible by providing support and comfort. Reassure them that people grieve in different ways. You can be sad, for example, without crying. You can feel devastated while seeking the conviviality of friends, or by spending time alone. You can feel a whole range of emotions from anger to guilt. If they do feel guilt, emphasize that they are not responsible so they are blameless and therefore guiltless.

Make it clear that you hope your kids will openly discuss their fears and concerns. Encourage them to talk about them or if they are old enough, to write their feelings down. If they are not, perhaps they\’d like to draw a picture about the event and how they feel. Try to help them feel safe in their current environment. It may be useful to help them feel more empowered by enrolling them in a school safety program or devising an emergency plan for your family. Get the children involved as you develop your plan.

If they ask how you feel, you can share your sorrow with them. Just be sure you don\’t get carried away and give them more cause for worry. This is a good time to turn off the television and come together as a family. Perhaps you can engage in a family activity that will be a respite from bad times, if only for a while. And always, always, listen to your children—the most important thing you can do to help them through a tragedy.

Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional.  If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch.  You can reach her here: https://nancyscounselingcorner.com/contact-us.




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