In the wake of the Sandy Hook, Connecticut school shooting, parents have been wondering how to talk about difficult or traumatic events with their children. Many questions arise as to what and how much to say to young children when something potentially frightening or anxiety provoking occurs and how to handle their responses. Conversations can range from discussions of traumatic natural disasters or the recent school shooting in Sandy Hook to talks about divorce, parental health problems, or even age appropriate questions about loss and death.
Here are some things to keep in mind when helping children understand and work through provocative and scary situations:
Stay engaged with your children --
Always make special time every day to check in with your children and focus your attention on them. The more connected and engaged parents are with their children, the more attuned they are to their children's emotions and the more connected and safe children feel. Staying engaged makes it easier to notice when children are affected by something, or not, and helps children feel comfortable talking about what bothers them.
Point out any unusual behaviors and/or changes in mood --
When an event or situation is upsetting to children, parents may see regressive behaviors, such as the need for the children to to stay close to the parents, toileting accidents, aggression, and/or emotional ups and downs/difficulty containing emotions (e.g., more outbursts or tantrums and longer times to console the children). Parents can talk to their children about what behaviors or moods they have noticed and ask them about what has been on their mind. Noting these unusual behaviors lets the children know that the parents are in touch with their experiences and it opens the door for communication.
Acknowledge your children's feelings --
Sometimes children feel upset but are not able to verbalize it. Giving words to feelings that seem unspoken, empathizing with what the children might be feeling, and sharing one's own feelings allows children to feel understood. This helps strengthen the parent-child bond and promotes feelings of safety and well-being for children.
Give children information at an age appropriate level --
Avoid over-explaining or providing too much detail. Children will ask the questions they have; offering an honest, simple, straightforward answer is enough (e.g, if a child is expressing a developmentally appropriate curiosity about death, it is fine to say that the person was old or sick or in an accident and is not going to be able to come back - or use whatever words or metaphors that make sense for the family or culture. Be mindful, though, of not increasing the child's anxiety, such as by telling a young child with sleeping fears that the person went to sleep forever. Choose your words carefully.) This way, the child gets an answer without being overwhelmed by the details, which may elicit further anxiety and, thus, more questions. If you do not know the answer, it is ok to say that too. Simply say so and acknowledge it as a good question. Most often, children are not looking for the details but are using their questions as a way to share their feelings and reach out for understanding.
Provide reassurance and comfort --
Understand that when children feel stressed, scared, confused, sad, etc., they may need more closeness, comfort, attention, and reassurance. This is normal. Be patient and allow children to be needy again. Comfort and understanding, along with acknowledging feelings and open communication, help restore a sense of safety and security.
Maintain consistency and structure --
When children are faced with confusing things, they can feel overwhelmed and out of control. To minimize these feelings, it is very useful to maintain a sense of consistency and structure. Putting in these exterior physical boundaries (e.g, routines, schedules, etc.) for children helps them feel safe inside.
Children are pretty resilient. With ongoing support, commitment, engagement, predictability, and reliability from their parents, children can process and work through their curiosities and upset of potentially disturbing events around them.