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When Tragedy Strikes ~ Helping Kids Understand and Cope

A grandparent dies.  An uncle or aunt is a victim of violent crime.  A major natural disaster levels the community where a cousin lives.  How do you tell your young children about these tragedies?  How detailed should you be in your explanation of the tragic event?  How can you help your kids understand and cope?

  • 1. Inform your kids as soon after the tragedy as is practical. You don’t want your kids to hear about the tragedy from a classmate or other third party.
  • 2. Select a private, quiet, familiar setting in which to speak with your kids about the tragedy. Your home is a good place to hold this discussion. You won’t want the environment to be distracting; so, minimize the number of people and activities in your home as you embark on this discussion.
  • 3. When speaking with your kids, be as calm as possible. It’s ok to be tearful: you want your kids to understand that it’s acceptable to express grief and worry through open expressions of sadness. However, panic and trauma should not be displayed in front of your kids. If your kids see you panic or experience trauma, they will likely experience panic and trauma as well.
  • 4. Provide your kids with only basic information initially. Then, ask them if they have any questions. Provide them with the additional information that they seek. This question-and-answer period may take weeks or months as your kids sort through the logic and emotions of the tragedy. By allowing the “Q&A” approach, your kids will not be given more information than they think they need. Be aware, however, that your kids may seek information because they think they need to know, but they may still struggle with the information once it’s received.
  • 5. If your kids ask you a question to which you do not know the answer, it’s ok to say that you don’t know. If practical, you can promise to research the question and get an answer for them within a period of time that you specify (“That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer, but I-or we-can check with the public library this weekend. Ok?”) However, some answers are harder to ascertain. For example, if your kids ask you why bad things happen to good people, the answer may not be clear cut even with reasonable research into the matter. You can tell your kids that no one knows the answer with certainty, but your perspective is _______.
  • 6. Ensure that you are especially attentive to your kids during this difficult time. Provide them with extra time to talk things over, to cuddle, and even to sit in silence together if that’s what they need.
  • 7. Engage in supportive behaviors for the victims, family and friends of the victims, or for causes that aid victims. For example, spend some time with the wounded aunt/uncle or volunteer for the Red Cross.

By following these seven steps, you can help your kids understand and cope when tragedy strikes.

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