Talking to Children About Tragedy

Talking to Children About Tragedy | Marcy Axness, PhD

It seems parents are confronted with increasing regularity with this question in the wake of unspeakable tragedy: How do I tell my child about this?

Do we follow our natural instinct to protect them, and say as little as possible, couching what we do say in bubble-wrapped terms? Is that the way to help a child feel secure?

On the day of 9/11, a friend who was wiser than me said something along these lines to her (then 12-year-old) daughter after she woke her up that morning: “There’s been a big incident in New York. Two airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers.” As Laura explains to me now, “I only transmitted the sadness, and not a big amount of alarm.”

Be The Security You Wish For Your Child

Here is where everything hinges: our children take all their cues, download most of their own response, from our own self-possession. Whether amidst the daily hassles of our personal family life, or more extreme, challenging events of our larger, complicated world, how do we (or do we) remain moored and centered?

This is one of the reasons that one of the first tools I suggest new or expectant parents take up is the practice of meditation and/or mindfulness. These cultivate the capacity for presence (which is the first of seven principles on which Parenting for Peace is based), and one of the most important kinds of presence a parent needs is the ability to be present for him- or herself. To be able to gather fully within that bodymind space and feel the gravitas of being all there.

An all there parent is already, by virtue of this grounded beingness, a huge comfort to a child in the face of something that has rocked his world — either far away or close to home. An all there parent is less likely to be swept up in the mass emotional tsunami that is so common at times like these.

In her book Authentic Parenting: A Four Temperaments Guide to Understanding Your Child and Yourself, Bari Borsky affirms the value of this parental centering: “Young children are like sponges in that they absorb the atmospheric energy around them without discernment or self-protection, especially if their parents are holding a lot of fear. To help your child feel safe during times of stress, surround him or her with an aura of confidence and calm that says ‘I am here for you and I will take care of you.’ ”

What Do We Say In the Wake of the Unsayable?

Here again is where we confront our own relationship with some of the most fundamental mysteries of Life. This is where the rubber hits the road in terms of how we believe the world, the cosmos, works — and its relationship to human events. When we have tended to our own inner life, and to cultivating a philosophy of life, these challenging moments are usually navigated more smoothly.

Either which way, what DO you say? The following guidelines are informed by esoteric and transpersonal psychology, and fly in the face of convention as well as our natural impulse:

For most children, who are usually very curious to know, it is best to say what happened, clearly and precisely, though of course not overburdened with sensational detail. Begin with a general statement, but one that is very true and not “prettied up”: “A very sad event happened. Lots of people were gathered in Las Vegas for an outdoor music concert, and a man fired a gun into the crowd.” This can be said to a five-year-old, a twelve-year-old. Even a three-year-old (but only if they ask, which would happen only if they’ve heard someone talking about it).

From there add correct details if asked for more, such as, “There were many people who were hurt and many people who died.” “Lots of experts are working hard to find out how to prevent something like this from happening again.” And it is always alright to answer “I don’t know” if you really don’t. We’re not masquerading reality; we consider the child worthy of our trust and intellectual companionship, even at the age of three.

It may sound shocking that we would not protect children from such a harsh and violent reality, but we all have an etheric dimension to ourselves (which includes our “energetic” perceptions — which is what children primarily register), and a child already knows at some level that something terrible happened. And then of course there’s what they see, whether it’s a bit of television coverage (though hopefully this is kept to a minimum, both for the child’s wellbeing and for your own).

And taking a cue from the great Fred Rogers, it is always good to “look for the helpers” — include stories of people who in the course of the tragedy and the aftermath display courage, compassion, selflessness and expertise. A child can be positively influenced lifelong by such examples.

If it’s something that has happened closer to home, there is the reality of what is going on around the house — the tears, the whispers, the uniforms, etc. And again, it’s all about the emotional “load” you put on it, because that will be the most potent piece of information for your child. Your inner calm fosters their security. And remember: it is possible to feel sadness while remaining more or less calm.

How To Protect Their Wellbeing

When we shield them from the facts, what that “protection” of them does is to convey to them that we don’t trust them with the truth. This idea that they would be unworthy of knowing the truth from us is a huge blow to self-esteem; they lose trust in us and in the world, because they don’t feel trusted. By contrast, few people are as strong and centered as those who have been trusted in this way during a crisis. Even a child.

Security only grows in the healthy soil of truth, trust and clarity. Any malevolent force, once it’s described or named, loses the insidious power to unsettle us which it derives from staying in the shadows. Whatever I keep from my children acquires the quality of a ghost — something that can haunt them in a way they’re unable to name. I wonder how many hours and dollars people have spent in therapists’ offices merely to sift through the well-intentioned mischaracterizations they grew up with, to finally — and with relief — get at what really happened. No matter how bad it might have been, it is only in knowing what really happened to us that we can be sane.

And secure.

Pt. II tomorrow: How Temperaments Help Talk About Tragedy

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