Talking to children about tragedy

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With recent and senseless shootings in places like Seattle, Wash., and Aurora, Colo., our country is dealing with heavy issues of tragedy, conflict and war. And while many adults struggle to find meaning and understanding in such events, parents are sometimes left struggling to answer those same questions for their children.

"It is difficult for us to process these things on our own," says Dr. Susan Kaneshiro, a clinical psychologist and program chair of the counseling programs at Argosy University, Orange County. "For parents, it can be even harder to know what, how much and how often to discuss these matters with children."

"Whether you are a military family that deals with a loved one deploying to a combat zone or you are a parent whose child has seen the news about the tragic shootings in Colorado and wants to know if it is safe to go to the movies anymore, parents often overlook the effect these crises can have on their children," says Dr. William Clough, professor of pastoral community counseling at Argosy University, Sarasota, retired Navy chaplain and a Presbyterian minister. "It's important to help your children understand the information in a way that is relevant to them and that they can comprehend."

Whether they overhear the evening news, have a friend or playmate with a parent serving in the military overseas or even have a discussion in the classroom about current events, parents can't always control the information their children receive about what's happening in the world. The key, according to both experts, is to listen to your children's concerns and to provide realistic assurance.

"Preschool children are more aware of what's going on in the world than toddlers, but they ask simple questions and should be given simple answers," says Clough. "Listen to their questions closely and let them lead the discussion. Keep the answers brief, factual, and as much as possible, reassuring."

While it ultimately depends on the age and maturity of each individual child, many parents will find greater awareness in children who are 6 or 7 years old. "Children around the age of 6 make tremendous use of their imaginations," says Kaneshiro. "Leaving it up to kids to discern between the realities of tragedies versus their imagined version may have detrimental effects on their mental health." And it's important to discuss these issues in ways that are appropriate to your child's age group.

When discussing tragedy, conflict and even war with your children, it's important to keep the right perspective with your children. "Instead of talking about these issues/crimes and the people who perpetrate them as being all 'good' or all 'evil,' I would suggest using this conversation as a way to explore some of the ways that these tragedies may hurt or bring people close together. Most importantly, help your child feel like she or he is doing something by encouraging them to help others who may be affected," says Kaneshiro.

There are ways to protect children's emotional and mental health when it comes to these kinds of issues by speaking to them frankly, but in a manner appropriate to their age. "Realistic discussion means acknowledging that there are people who seek to harm other people, but the chances of being harmed are small," says Clough. "There are many dedicated and capable people (police, spies and military people) working to keep us safe. And reassure your children that you, their parent, will do everything you can do to keep them safe, too."

"Stating facts in a calm, age-appropriate and confident manner can be the best way to soothe most children. Providing excessive amounts of information or lecturing is not going to help them. Neither is lying to them by promising things we cannot guarantee," says Kaneshiro. "Depending on the child's age, parents may consider limiting exposure to the news or content that may be misinterpreted."

While it's important for both adults and children to learn to grapple with the complexities of these types of tragedies, it's also important to know when to intervene. "If the child's behaviors or emotions are starting to impact social, school or intrapersonal functioning, then it is time to reach out for help on behalf of your child," says Kaneshiro.