Talking to children about war, terrorism, school violence, natural disasters

Dr. Mary Manz Simon, early childhood educator, quotes The Why Files: Is There Really Life After Death? in this important article to help your child or teen cope with a catastrophe like a terrorist attack:

1. Share facts as you know them

During the past several years, there has been a lot of discussion about values and virtues. Now is the time to live out the virtue of honesty.

Give facts, not rumors. If you don’t know the answers, be truthful.

Simply say, “We don’t know all the facts yet. Here is what we do know.” This is not a time to play the know-it-all-parent.

2. Assure your child he is safe

A child wants to know, “Will my house be bombed?”

Children tend to personalize events that happen on the world stage.

Explain how you’ve always been there to care for your child and how he has always been safe.

Confirm that you will help him stay safe in the future.

3. Continue routines

Much of a child’s sense of safety and security comes from daily rituals.

Kids need to eat lunch at the normal time. They need their usual afternoon nap.

Even though we might be emotionally frazzled and physically want to stay glued to the TV, keep life moving. That communicates the message, “Yes, something terrible happened a long way from here. But you still need to put your toys away.”

Government officials and medical personnel are focused on the aftermath; your focus is your child.

4. Respect your child’s timeline and interest in the event

Your child might not want to talk about the event today; however, she might raise questions next week.

This is the time to apply your long-term, in-depth knowledge of your child.

Look carefully at her nonverbal clues; listen intently to what she says.

Follow her lead. If your child asks, “What happened to that building?,” she might just want to know, “An airplane hit the building.” She might not need a five-minute explanation of the specific events of the day.

5. Help your child make sense of this horrible experience

This is not the time to plunk down a child alone in front of a TV and let her zone out.

Co-view selected news programs with your child. Then turn off the television.

Look for something your child can learn, even in the middle of a tragedy.

Use the same approach you use every day when you hear a siren zipping down the street. At that point, you say, “Someone needs help. The siren means help is on the way. Let’s pray for the people who need help and those who will give help.”

You can apply this same concept to larger-scale disasters.

6. Encourage your older child to take action

Older children, beginning about the age of 8 or 9, often want to do something to help. They aren’t old enough to donate blood; they can’t volunteer at agencies. However, they can attend a memorial or prayer service. They can donate money.

And, of course, even younger children can join you in prayer. Speaking to God can be very comforting and allows a child to put his faith into action.

7. Coordinate efforts with your child’s school

Find out what the school is doing. Most schools will schedule counselors to talk with students. Afterward, ask your child, “What did the counselor say today that made sense to you? How did you feel after she talked to your class?”

Throughout the coming days and weeks, stay alert to additional opportunities to discuss your child’s feelings about what happened.

Suggestions for talking with students about this tragedy

Parents, teachers, and other adults may not be sure how to discuss the tragedy with youth. Many of the ideas are parallel to suggestions for younger children. However, more youth will be able to think abstractly and, depending on their age, may know Seniors in their High School who have had to register for the selective service as routine procedure. This link lists a few basic points adapted from Jim Watkins’ The Why Files: Is there Really Life after Death?

These five steps are helpful for conversations with adolescents in times of tragedy:

Preparing No one was really prepared for the tragedy, but taking a few minutes to organize your thoughts before the conversation, even making notes on paper, may be helpful. What topics do you want to be sure and address. What will you say about God, hope, and love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ? Write out a Bible passage or two (but not a sermon or lecture), and a prayer. Some passages might come from one of the other resources on this site, especially the Meditation Guide for the National day of Prayer.

Talking By now, the initial shock of the event is past, so there may be no need to “ease into” the conversation. However, some of the topics that arise may still be sensitive. Be frank, honest, expressing your own feelings and vulnerabilities. Make sure you arrange for time to talk about the tragedy.

Listening One of the most important things to do in a time of crisis is to listen . . . even if it is to the silence. Jim Watkins reminds us that one of the most desperate needs of teens is to be accepted, not judged or ignored. Adults cannot fix this situation, but can listen to their kids.

Grieving Watkins reminds us that “in the past, people were told not to cry out loud at funerals. Mourners were urged to dry their eyes, be brave, be strong, and not express grief. Tranquilizers were used to keep emotions under control. Today medical and psychological studies have revealed the importance of ‘good grief.'” Even though the tragedy may be hundreds or thousands of miles away, there may be times of grief for our youth. Allow tears, silence, and uncertainty. Use comfort responses . . . listen to familiar and nostalgic music, look at old family pictures, and make sure kids continue to get regular food and exercise.

Being There Watkins reminds us that “often just ‘being there’–without answers and cliches–is valuable support. It is always important to spend time with our children and young people, but it’s absolutely essential to spend special time with them following a death. . . . Keep in mind that the mourning process can take up to five or more years to work through. Assure your young person that grief is a very normal emotion and is shared by every other person who has lost a loved one.”

Copyright © 2001 Concordia Publishing House
Photo: Janko Ferlio


Author and speaker

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