When your child approaches you with questions or fears regarding a tragic event that’s occurred, it’s not always easy to determine the best way to react. While it’s important to reassure them that every effort is being made to ensure their safety and provide them with comforting words, there are also some statements or questions that aren’t ideally suited to helping children process their grief, fears or anxiety. Learning what not to say to a child who’s just learning to manage their emotions during difficult times is just as important as knowing how to find the right words to say to them, as some comments carelessly tossed into the conversation will have more of a negative impact than things that you choose not to say.
“You’re Too Little to Understand What’s Happening.”
Your child may not have reached a developmental stage that will allow them to process the more complex themes of loss and devastation, but they do understand that something has happened and that it’s making everyone very sad. In the case of violent tragedies involving other children, they also are forced to acknowledge the idea that scary, violent things happen to children just like them and may be startled by that realization and in need of reassurance. Dismissing your child’s questions or need to discuss a tragic situation with a phrase like, “you’re too young to understand it” or “we’ll talk about it when you’re a little older” only leaves your child with more questions, more confusion and an active imagination that can fill in the gaps your refusal to discuss the matter leaves behind.
“That Didn’t Really Happen, It’s Just a Story on the News.”
It can be tempting to tell your child that a horrific event was just another fictional television plot, but it can also very easily backfire. Unless your children are very young, they will hear differently from their peers and classmates. In addition to damaging your child’s trust in you, this can also end with them obtaining more lurid details than they’re developmentally prepared for as they pump others for information they’re not getting at home.
“This Could Happen to Anyone.”
Hearing you say that tragedies, especially violent ones, could happen anytime to anyone may essentially be true, but it can also strip them of any sense of security that they have regarding their own safety. Rather than impressing upon youngsters that terrible events strike indiscriminately and largely without warning, make the effort to reassure them that you, their teachers, police officers and firefighters make every possible effort to ensure their safety each day, and that they are being protected to the full extent of your collective abilities.
“Everything Will Be Just Fine Tomorrow.”
While it may seem reassuring to explain to your child that everything will be back to normal when she wakes up, it’s also patently untrue. Catastrophic events, especially those that happen on a local level, will ultimately effect noticeable change on the day-to-day routines your child is used to in a very real way. Whether those changes come in the form of increased security measures, memorial services or rebuilding efforts, the aftereffects of a tragic situation will be apparent to your child for weeks or even months after it occurs.
Even if you’re trying to soothe an upset child, telling her not to cry sends the message that she shouldn’t be expressing grief and that her feelings aren’t okay. Kids need to know that it’s okay to feel however they’re feeling in the aftermath of a tragedy, whether they’re sad, angry or just confused. Encouraging your child to share her feelings and express them is a healthy alternative to insisting that she disregard them altogether.
“I Don’t Know What This World is Coming To.”
When you use phrases like “I don’t know what this world is coming to” or “I can’t imagine what will happen next,” you’re effectively expressing your own surprise and dismay over tragic events. Using those phrases when discussing such things with children, however, paints a picture of an unpredictable and dangerous world that’s quickly spiraling out of control. Make sure that you reserve these statements for discussions with adults, as they’ll only serve to upset children more and make them feel anxious about their own safety.
It’s perfectly normal for your child to behave in ways that are normally out of character for them after a disaster or violent event, but nightmares, anxiety or regressive behavior that doesn’t seem to lessen over time could be an indicator that they’re having trouble managing it on their own. In these cases, speaking with your child’s pediatrician or another medical professional can help you determine the best way to to help them adjust.