This article was previously published, and has been updated to reflect the latest events.
We work so hard to protect the innocence of early childhood in our family’s microcosm: Be gentle with the kitty. Put the cap back on your marker. Water the flower a little — not too much — so it can keep growing. Walk around the wriggly worms on the rainy day’s sidewalk.
All the tiny nuances of awareness that we try to give to our kids.
When something large and tragic happens in the world around us — as with the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida or natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Maria — it affects us all. We bear witness. We empathize. We wonder what it would be like if it happened to us, our loved ones, our children.
It can be too much to bear, and we may slip a little in maintaining the protective bubble we’ve put around our children. We might try to talk in code about the tragedy – thinking our kids won’t notice what the grown-ups are talking about. We might let our guard down about sheltering kids from the media – because we desperately want and need more information out of the wish to have the world feel right again.
So, in this awful moment, what can we, as parents, educators, care providers do for young children?
- Go easy on yourself if you slip up. Notice that you might have talked in front of a child, forgive yourself for the understandable slip, and tend to what that child might have heard. Start with something simple: “I think you heard the grown-ups talking and I bet you have some questions,” or “I know I usually don’t watch the news when you are in the room. You must have some thoughts about what the news person was talking about.”
- Don’t guess at what the child does or doesn’t know. Ask for their thoughts and theories. This is a great rule of thumb for any of life’s difficult moments: Spend more time listening than talking. Your job is to contain what the child has been exposed to, to garner his or her ideas and provide compassionate corrections for what has been misunderstood.
- Don’t give out any additional details, other than what’s needed to correct the child’s theories. If we find the details overwhelming as adults, then the details are not appropriate for children on the periphery of the tragedy. By this I mean that unless a child is in a geographic or social radius that connects them directly to the tragedy, then the child does not need details. Children on the periphery only need reassurance that their trusted grown-ups know how to keep them safe and that the people far away who have been through something scary are getting good help.
- If a child is within a geographic or social radius of the tragedy, it is important to slow down and think together with someone who knows a lot about child development about how best to address the child’s concerns. This must be individualized. There is no standard way to help a child integrate tragedy.
We have some professional guidelines (Do things in bearable bits; Keep what routines can be kept to provide reassurance; Know that children process things differently than adults; Avoid euphemisms …) but cannot do written justice to the help that is needed in these situations. If you care for a child whose life has been touched by tragedy, reach out for developmental guidance. If you don’t know how to find someone in your community, contact us and we will help you find someone.
- Demonstrate to your child that our lives keep structure, even when there is something tragic going on for people we care about. We still eat, sleep, go to school and work, make art, play, notice nature, read, make music, even laugh. It is not disloyal to our community or our loved ones to still take pleasure in the world – even if we are mindful of suffering at the same time.
- Turn off all media. The images and narratives seem to pop up and surprise the grown-ups. Do not take any chances with what your child might be exposed to. Even during children’s programs we will sometimes see ads for news programs. It is just not worth the risk of overwhelming your child. Rely on favorite CDs, DVDs, apps or tech-free entertainment. A child who is not in the geographic or social radius of tragedy need not hear about it accidentally.
- If your child has been exposed to even a tiny piece of information, take the time to slow down and listen to what he or she heard or saw. Children (and adults) are traumatized by information that is not easily integrated into their understanding of the world. As therapists we know there is always a way to integrate difficult things into our understanding – it just takes time, compassion, repetition (therefore patience), and a willingness to put things into words.
Knowledge does not get woven into our awareness with one 5-minute conversation; it takes revisiting over and over.
(Think about how many times you have to tell your children they must hold hands to cross the street or not to hit the dog … if it takes that many times with simple safety, then it takes that many times with big things like tragedy and loss.)
As therapists, this is what we do: We help parents find compassionate, containing words so they can have the conversations over and over, so their children can take in life’s experiences without becoming overwhelmed.
As community members, our thoughts are with the victims, families, and first responders in Parkland – and around the world.
About the Author:Shari Nacson is a freelance editor, nonprofit consultant, and clinical social worker who specializes in early childhood. She received her therapist training through Hanna Perkins.