An earthquake in China kills thousands. A suicide bomber in Iraq destroys a mosque during Friday prayer. A gunman takes the lives of scores of innocents in a Florida nightclub. On every television, on every device, tragedy is everywhere. Sometimes the tragedy may be closer to home, such as the death of a friend or family member. So, how should you address these situations with children in school?
The first thing to understand is that children are exceptionally resilient. They’re often simply looking for an adult to explain what has happened, put it in context and demonstrate that they’ll be safe.
The absence of fact perpetuates fear. Therefore, it is crucial that parents, teachers and other adults are honest with children when they ask about a tragedy they’ve just heard about, because it’s very real to them regardless of how far away it happened. It’s also important to choose words appropriate to a child’s age and comprehension.
Let children talk about their feelings and fears with parents, teachers and other adult authority figures. At Boys Town, we talk about these things in the classroom, but we first turn off televisions and other devices, so we can speak to our youth directly, without the distraction of the 24/7 media blaring in the background.
It’s also crucial to keep emotions in check. Children often overreact to trauma they witness on TV. We always try to talk about things calmly and explain that our children are safe.
On the other hand, we also look for the child who seems unaffected by tragedy, because he/she may be internalizing their emotions in a way that could manifest in other issues down the road, such as depression and self-harm.
At Boys Town, we have psychologists and psychiatrists on-staff, but our entire team is trained in crisis counselling so that any individual can be an ear for a worried student.
Sadly, ever-present tragedy is a byproduct of our 21st-century plugged-in lives, but if we’re honest with our children, we will arm them with the tools to fight off the irrational fears that can accompany these horrifying events.
For more information, visit our Parenting Through Crisis Guide.