Talking about tragedy with your children

17 Aug

Helicopter Mom and Just Plane Dad asked me to write a guest blog on talking with kids about tragedies like school shootings, child abductions, and terrorist’s attacks. This is a very complex topic; so complex, that I have been thinking about it and working on it for several months.

child with flag at funeral

I am sure there are as many ways to talk to kids about these tragedies as there are ways to talk with them about sex. So, here are my ideas and suggestions:

First, let’s admit to ourselves that these horrific things will continue to occur in spite of all of our efforts to avoid them. Sure, we would like to shield our kids from hearing about disasters, catastrophes, and heartbreak, but these are all a part of life and children must learn to deal with them. Every expert knows that parents are their kid’s best teachers.

We parents are concerned because it seems that these horrible events are happening more often in this generation than previously. Truth be told, there were kidnappings, family shootings, and other crimes against children years ago, but reporting was not as efficient and not so widespread. The good news is that some calamities, like reported sexual abuse against children, have actually decreased in the past 2 decades.

Begin talking with your infants from the day you meet them. I once saw an unmarried teen mother who laughed when I asked her crying, month old son if his tummy hurt. Through her giggles she informed me that babies can’t talk. No, they can’t, I replied. But they can hear and listen, and they learn how to interact with others and how to have conversations very early in life.

It seems strange to me that some kids, teens especially, avoid conversation with their parents. In many cases, they have never had real conversation with adults. As kids they chatter while adults do some other task, and like their parents, do not really listen when adults talk to them.

So, listen to, and talk with, your kids every day, as much as possible. Conversations which are begun in infancy, not monologs, lectures, or sermons, but real conversation, will continue to be important to kids all during childhood, into the teen years, and will mature into adult dialog.

Family Values with Helicopter Mom and Just Plane Dad

Discuss everything. Yes, everything that comes up. Don’t be afraid of what they will ask, or where the conversation may go. Take no subject off the table; just be sure to discuss things on their intellectual level. If you feel that you need assistance with the conversation, there are many professionals that can help.  If you’re confused as to how to deal with these topics as parents, Regain.us offers counseling options.

Listen, yes, really listen, with as much attention as you would give your boss if he were talking with you. Let them tell you about the things that happened in their day. Then tell them about yours. Make sure some of the things you talk about are funny, some are serious, and some are just things that happened in the neighborhood or in the world.

Ask their opinions on these topics. Kids will have opinions at a very early age, acknowledge them. If you agree, affirm them; if you have a different opinion, don’t call theirs wrong. Tell them why you think what you do and listen as they tell you why they think what they do. Show them how to have different opinions without yelling, shouting, pouting, or fighting.

These conversations can and will happen spontaneously throughout the day, but especially at dinner time. Read the paper together, watch the news together, let your kids experience the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly as it occurs. They need to know what’s happening and how you react to it. They will soon share your thoughts and concerns as long as you don’t give them more solo time (rewards) for disagreeing; they will become you.

Know that how your kids react to a tragedy is predicated on how you act. Some years ago a family with a five year old boy was visiting our home. It was the fall of the year and we were lucky enough to have a beautiful garden spider spin her web on our deck railing. Our family spent many evenings watching her rebuild it as she prepared for tomorrow’s catch.

Thinking the young boy would find it interesting I asked him to come with me to see something special; who could not want to see this exciting natural phenomenon. He saw the spider while we were still a few feet away and began to cry and scream. Then he pulled away from my hand and ran to his now frightened mother.

What happened? She wanted to know. I was dumbfounded, I didn’t know. I asked her to come with me. When we neared the spider web, she gasped, “Par, there’s a giant spider just waiting to jump us!” She turned and ran back to the house! She taught her son well, he was becoming her.

When tragedy strikes consider how you will react when telling your kids about it. If grandma dies unexpectedly you will be in tears as you tell them. Regardless of their age, they will understand this is a sad event, and like you they will no-doubt cry.

Unless they are very young they will know something about death because they have seen news stories about it and perhaps know someone who has died. In any event, give them an age appropriate explanation. How they act from then until the funeral will depend on how you act. You are the leader, lead, and they will follow.

Our future lies not in the hands of our children, but in the hands of their parents!  click to tweet

If there is a shooting at a school, ask them if they heard about the awful school shooting. Then listen to what they say. If you are crying and you may be, they might ask why. Tell them you are feeling so sorry for the kids who were hurt and for their parents. Tell them that you are so glad that didn’t happen at your school.

Watch a bit of it on the news and answer any questions they have about it. But don’t tune them into the 24/7 news programming about the shooting. That is not helpful for any of us regardless of our age. After a few words about how awful it was for someone to perform such a brutal act, go on with your lives.  Move them and yourself back into your routine.

Later at dinner time, you might ask what they think could be done to avoid things like that happening again, or what punishment might the perpetrators get. Whatever their answer, agree with them. If it’s too far out tell them you don’t understand, ask them how what they suggested might help?

No need to lecture at this time just let them talk. Listen more than you talk. This will make them feel free to ask questions. If you ask if they have any questions, I doubt they will respond. They probably have tons of them, but it will take time to formulate them. There will be plenty of time and opportunities over the next few days and weeks for them to ask questions.

If kids witness a tragedy give them the opportunity to tell what happened. Listen actively, repeat what they told you. Ask if you have it right. Show interest! They may want to talk about it again and again. As a general rule, that’s helpful, but we should not prompt them to recite the details to cousins, friends, and anyone else who will listen. We should not turn it into a game of show and tell!

Finally, the most important parts of any conversation with your kids are your reaction to what you are discussing, and the conversations you’ve had in the years, months, and weeks prior! Remember, your kids will become you, so be the person you want them to become!

Dr DonahueDr. Parnell (Par) Donahue was born in 1938 on a farm near Westbrook, Minnesota, the third child in a family of nine. Believe it or not, he attended a one-room school house where one teacher taught all eight grades!  He earned his medical degree from Marquette University School of Medicine, now Medical College of Wisconsin. He was a General Medical Officer in the USAF before his specialty training in pediatrics. He practiced pediatrics, adolescent medicine, and adolescent sports medicine in Hartford and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Donahue is the author of several books.  Visit his blog and find him on FaceBook.

Purchase Dr. Donahue’s books on Amazon.

Tool for Effective Parenting: Parenting with Dr. Par

parenting with dr par

4 Responses to “Talking about tragedy with your children”

  1. Par Donahue October 21, 2016 at 1:25 PM #

    Thanks so much for re-posting. I appreciate all you do for families and kids.

    • Cee Lee October 23, 2016 at 10:21 AM #

      You are most welcome. And thank you too.

  2. L. E. Mastilock February 24, 2015 at 1:49 AM #

    This is wonderful. Kids and teens should be talked to as people, with respect for their opinions and show them that their thoughts are important to you, even if they’re just telling you about a video game they like or the color of a pair of shoes they want to buy. Treat them as you want to be treated and they’ll learn to do the same.

  3. Dr. Par Donahue July 22, 2013 at 11:47 AM #

    Thanks so much for posting my guest blog. I loved the pictures you chose! I wish we didn’t even have to think about such tragedies, but we do live in a violent world. Thanks too, for posting my social media addresses and the sales info! I appreciate it. I look forward to working with you again! Par

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