When Tragedy Happens: Communicating and Supporting Our Children
When Tragedy Happens: Communicating and Supporting Our Children
by Susie Lang-Gould, MA, RCC
The impact of tragedy can suddenly strike very close to home, as the recent stabbing at Abbotsford Senior Secondary School has shown us. These events, whether near or far, present challenges for parents.
How do we help our children understand and process such tragic events?
Facts are our Friends
One of the first steps in helping a child understand a tragedy is to learn what they have heard about the event. Misinformation about the event from friends or social media may cause confusion or misunderstanding. Remember facts are our friends. Tell a child the facts as you know them at the time.
Use Simple Language
No matter what the age of the child, use simple language in speaking about the event. For example: Today a man came into Abbotsford Senior Secondary School and stabbed two female students. One died and the other one is in intensive care at the hospital. As more facts are known, you may relay them to your child or teen in a similar manner. Answer questions as you are able, but don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
Our Own Response
Be aware of your own emotional response to the situation. Children may be impacted by our experience. If we are afraid or angry, our children may respond in a similar manner. Communicate about what you are feeling in a simple and direct way and let your children know the healthy ways you are choosing to express your feelings. For example: “I feel sad that a young girl died. It’s okay for me to cry because I’m sad.”
Social Media and Technology
Social media and technology have added another layer to our information resources beyond television and radio. Events can become viral on social media platforms before parents are even aware the event has occurred. Speak with your children about the impact that disturbing or violent visual images can have on them, both in the present and in the future. Images can trigger trauma which can be a problem at any time.
Limiting access and exposure to graphic images and video may be the best choice. Or you may choose to watch the media reports together to be able to discuss what they have seen and how they feel about it. Prepare them for images they may come across by chance. We can teach respect for the people impacted by the tragic events by teaching our children to refrain from watching media images and videos.
Be an Emotional Coach
One of our biggest challenges as parents during these tragic situations is how to be our child or teenager’s emotional coach. How often do we ask our teens, ‘how are you?’ and we hear a simple, ‘I’m fine, whatever’ in response. What does this kind of response mean? When I hear this type of answer, I automatically wonder what does ‘fine’ mean? Does the teenager have the language to express what might be going on for them internally? Unfortunately, many children and teens may not know how to express through language how they are feeling. Often these feelings get expressed through behaviours. Changing or challenging behaviour may be an outward indicator of their internal emotional experience. Part of our role as a parent or adult in their lives can be to help them figure out what the behaviour is saying to us.
Behaviours to Watch
Changes in eating, sleeping or exercise habits may be indicators that a child or teen is not coping well. Out of control emotions are another sign to watch for. Some children may try to avoid situations or places they have enjoyed in the past, such as, school, activities or friends. The degree of the emotional response to a tragic event at the time of the event can be varied. Some teens may have a strong emotional reaction, while others may seem to have no reaction at all. When we feel threatened or afraid, our emotional instinctual responses can be anger, sadness and/or fear. We may also have feelings of confusion, unfairness or injustice. Let your child or teen know that all feelings are okay. Healthy feelings come into our body, mind and spirit; we name them, find healthy ways to express them and they pass through. Feelings become challenging when they get stuck, unaddressed or internalized. We need to be emotional coaches, helping them navigate this process and offering them information and guidance when required.
Sometimes when we hear, “I don’t care. Whatever, I’m fine,” we are hearing a child who has become defended against vulnerability. Unfortunately, when a child or teenager has shared vulnerable feelings in places that have been unsafe, this can be a very wounding experience. Interactions with friends and peers can be one of the most wounding places for a teenager. Two decades of research continues to show the importance of strong adult relationships for children and teenagers.
A Safe Connection
How do we make a safe connection with a child or teen? As in any other relationship, our children need three things in order to feel safe. Firstly, they need us to be warmly present. Turn off the phone, refrain from multitasking and focus on what the child is saying. Engage them with your eyes, ears, smile and body language. Show interest (even if you are not interested!). Secondly, children who do have a safe adult often say they do not feel judged. No matter what they say, be open to different perspectives, ideas, thoughts and opinions. When a child or teen is in a non-judgmental relationship, they are more willing to share their innermost pain and joy. Lastly, there is no doubt that children need us to actively listen to understand. This is the deepest level of listening and feels so different when you experience it. So often in life, we listen to respond or listen to react. When we do this, our children feel misheard and unseen. Sometimes, as soon as we speak, a child can feel misunderstood. The best thing we can do may be to nod our head and say “uh huh”. That is all they need to continue talking and sharing their feelings. Our children need us to listen to understand, to be curious about what they saying, to look for the deeper meaning and to ask open ended questions. When we understand this concept, the conversations become longer and more interesting.
It only takes one safe relationship with an adult to make a difference in a child’s life. When tragedy happens, let’s find a way to build our relationship with our children.
Susie Lang-Gould, MA, RCC is the Director of Peace Portal Counselling Centre. Susie has over 20 years experience as a Coach, Teacher and Clinical Counsellor working in both private and public school settings and at Family Services of Greater Vancouver. Additionally, she is a seasoned Elementary and High School Counsellor and Sessional Instructor at University of British Columbia.
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