Explaining world tragedy to children
Your six year old has just seen video of real children being washed out to sea. Your teen sits transfixed watching images of people clinging to trees, mothers wailing as they discover dead children in an endless line of unclaimed bodies, and babies crying hysterically for their mothers. At the dinner table your fifth grader asks, "Can anything like that happen to us, Dad?"
Easing your children's fears and painHow is a parent to respond?
What should you say? What should you do? How do you deal with your child's fears without increasing them? Is it possible to reassure your child at a time when you, yourself, are horrified by the images of intense pain and grief you see in the hearts and on the faces of parents half way around the world?
Yes, you are filled with empathy for the survivors who have lost loved ones, homes and jobs. Yes, you are extremely grateful that your children are safe in your comfortable home as the horrific images continue to flow onto your television screen. And yes, you can use this incredibly tragic situation to help your children learn lessons of love, compassion and of the indestructible nature of the human spirit.
Once children have seen the images of tragedy and suffering it is necessary to debrief it with them. The sooner the better. By debriefing, we mean answering their questions, providing information, asking questions and reflecting their feelings.
Provide the scientific information for which they are asking
Tell your children in age appropriate language what you know about how nature can create a tidal wave, tornado, hurricane, volcanic eruption or whatever the tragedy might be. Keep this part factual. You can even use books or magazines to assist you in providing information.
Tell your children the effects of the natural disaster
Talk about the destruction that was created as a result of nature's fury. This is a good time to make the connection between cause and effect. Limit what you say to what was seen on TV or directly questioned by your children. Too much information at this point can increase their fright and worry.
The goal here is to be brief, accurate and provide them with the specific information for which they are looking. If you fail to give them information, if you fail to debrief, children's brains will fill in the blanks. Better to fill in those gaps yourself with factual knowledge than to have your children fill them with their imaginations.
Concentrate on feelings
Your children will be seeing a wide variety of feelings expressed on TV. They will see sadness, panic, grief, relief, joy, depression, frustration and desperation, among others. In addition, they will personally be full of unexpressed and often unrecognized feelings.
When you sense they are feeling empathy, sadness or pain, say so
Tell them, "You seem deeply saddened about this," or "You sound scared and frightened that this might happen to us." Children are starving for feeling recognition and this is a great time to supply it.
When strong emotion is shown on TV, honor it by talking about it
Mention the extreme sadness and grief that is shown there. Refrain from being an adult who ignores the grief of others and refuses to acknowledge it. Do not treat hurting human beings like they are invisible. Talk about your feelings. Tell your children about the sympathy, empathy, and pain you feel for the loss of others. Allow your children to hear and see you express feelings. In so doing, you are helping them acquire a feeling vocabulary that they can use their entire lives.
When you communicate your feelings and honor the feelings of your children for people around the world, you teach them important lessons about the human condition. You help them appreciate how we are all more alike than different. You help them see that we are all connected, no matter how distant we seem. You help them learn we are all one.
As you go through this debriefing process, encourage your children to look for the helpers. Helpers always come. There are always people who step forth to help. In the case of a major tragedy there will be many helpers, playing out a variety of roles. Point them out to your children.
When small problems occur in their own lives they will have learned to look for the helpers. There are helpers at school, on the playground, in the mall, and on the highway when our car breaks down. Learn to look for helpers and they will be more likely to show up when you need them.
Discuss with your children how you as a family can be helpers during this tragedy
Perhaps you can send money, give blood, say prayers, send love, or call the Red Cross to see what kinds of items can be donated. Choose one or more ways to be helpers as a family and allow your children to help implement that strategy with you. Pray together. Let them observe as you give blood. Take them shopping for the toiletry items needed by the Red Cross. Let them help you address the envelope that sends the check. Get them involved in the process of being a helper. Let them see and be love in action.
Our deepest sympathies and heartfelt prayers go out to the families directly affected by the most recent tsunami. The scope and depth of the pain and heartache of catastrophic tragedies like this are not measurable. Yet, those same horrific events can be used for good if we help our children learn about feelings, looking for the helpers, appreciating the connectedness of all human beings, and the beauty of one heart reaching out to another across the continents. We can help them learn that around the world is a long way away and still very much a part of our neighborhood.