When tragedy strikes, it seems to bring out the best and the worst in people. One tragedy after another – fires, shootings and a horrific bus accident – has left people reeling in pain and raw with emotion.
While some experienced personal loss and/or injury, these events have impacted everyone in the community. In most cases, adults have words and the mental ability to process what just happened, but it is a different story for children.
“Children watch their parents’ or caregivers’ response,” says psychologist Dr. Gary Oliver with the Center for Healthy Relationships. “Even if their parents didn’t say a word about the anxiety they felt, their children could feel it. Anxiety and fear are contagious. Children are very good at reading facial expressions and noticing a change in the tone of voice used by their parents.”
Situations like this are an opportunity for parents to teach their children how to handle tragedy. What do you do in the midst of crisis? How do you practice good self-care? How do you move forward even when it’s painful?
“In many instances adults can make a difficult situation worse by our own lack of self- awareness,” Oliver says. “Thinking about your own fears is important. Listening to your children and what they are thinking can be very helpful. Tragedies like the bus accident, a death in the family or the loss of a home can become a great opportunity to build trust and communication, and to increase a child’s sense of security, continuity and stability.”
Oliver has these suggestions for walking through tragedy with your children:
- Listen to your kids. Let them talk. Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers. Extroverted children will usually tell you what they are thinking. Introverted children probably won’t, so it is important for you to understand the nuances of your child’s personality. Help them to share their thoughts by sharing your own thoughts and feelings appropriately. Comfort them and remind them that they are safe, secure and loved.
- Be honest. For example, it is okay to say something like, “I’m not sure where we are going to live for a while.” Or, “Our lifestyle is going to change a bit.” Being honest can be very healing and therapeutic.
- Seek to respond with patience instead of react. Children may ask lots of questions and become clingy. Model the steps that will move them toward hope and recovery. Reacting creates panic, often results in poor decision-making and tends to make things worse over time. Responding is more of a process where you acknowledge that what is happening is awful. In other words, you feel the loss, but have hope for tomorrow.
- Focus on what you can do. In the midst of the greatest tragedy, we always have choices. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are a part of the grieving and rebuilding process, but remember that the process is unique for everyone. Don’t be afraid to seek help for you and/or your children when you feel it is necessary.
In demonstrating these steps for your children, you will give them skills for the future. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed in the midst of tragedy, your example can guide them to keep perspective and continue to put one foot in front of the other with hope for the future.