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Talking to Children About Tragedies
by Michele Borba, Ed.D.

Author of Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing

"Dear Dr. Borba: My six-year-old is so upset by the attack on New York. He watched the airplane hit the World Trade Center on TV and saw it collapse and knew people died. Now he’s afraid to let me out of his sight and cries when his daddy leaves for work. He’s sure a plane will hit his dad’s office, too. He keeps asking me why people are so mean. I don’t know what to tell him or do to make him feel safe. Do you have any ideas?"
- A mom from Sarasota, Florida

Tragedies are difficult enough for adults to try and understand, let alone our kids. When tragedies are perpetrated intentionally by others and cause injuries and deaths, they are especially hard. And to adolescents with already negative views of world, they can only reinforce their outlook that cruelty is pervasive. That’s why it’s important to talk to your children and reassure them that not only are they secure, but the world is still filled with good, peaceful people. Talking about the event also helps you assess your children’s emotional needs and understanding about what happened.

Whenever you discuss any tragedy with children-such as a gang war, school shooting, a terrorist attack, natural disaster, deaths at a concert or sporting event-there are four elements you can use that help reassure them that their world is still safe and caring. To help you remember the parts, just think of the word TALK; each part begins with a letter of the word:

T – Tune in to your child’s emotions
A – Assure safety and be available
L – Listen patiently
K – Kindle empathy and do something positive.

Here are the four parts to discussing tragedy and how you might use them with children:

T - Tune in to your child’s emotional state. As the events unfold observe your child with your ears, eyes, and heart and expect that he probably will be distressed. Watch closely to see how your child handles the tragedy and determine whether he may need specific help. For instance, is he overly-frightened, clinging, having nightmares, having trouble concentrating, tantrums, afraid to be alone, regressing to younger development behaviors, acting out, withdrawing, crying, or changing eating or sleeping habits? If these continue, seek help. Each person uses his unique temperament, past experiences, and coping strategies to deal with a tragedy.

  • Seek support. Do seek support from friends to talk about your feelings to help you keep emotionally healthy so you can deal more confidently with your kids.
  • Offer emotional outlets. Find ways as a family to release tension: exercise, go for walks or bike rides, eat well, listen to soothing music, watch humorous videos.
  • Utilize beliefs. Model coping practices with your family such as meditating, going to church, journaling, praying, or doing spiritual readings. Do them with your kids.

A – Assure safety and be available. A top priority in any tragedy is to assure your child that he is not in danger. Emphasize that you are there to protect and keep him safe. Here are a few ways to rebuild security in children’s lives during distressing times:

  • Be with them. Give extra hugs, spend longer tucker them in, be available, and assure them you are safe and are there for them.
  • Provide structure. Children need stability to help them feel secure, so try to stick to their everyday routines and schedules as much as possible.
  • Affirm safety of loved ones. This is important even if you are nowhere near the site. Have your child phone or email those he’s concerned about to assure him.
  • Model emotional strength. Your kids mirror your example: demonstrate emotional strength to the best of your ability. Don’t dwell on the incident; model optimism.
  • Stress isolated event. Emphasize that this is a one-time incident and now it’s over.
  • Describe safety actions. Stress that people are taking action to keep our country safe and help those who are hurt.
  • Minimize TV viewing. Don’t let kids younger than five watch these images: they have difficulty distinguishing between real and unreal.

L – Listen patiently. Kids need to know that it is okay to talk about the event and share their feelings. Let them know you are available patiently reassure them that it’s normal to be upset. Listening will help you gauge the kind of support they might need.

  • Stick to facts. You do not need to explain more than they are ready to hear. Discuss the tragedy is terms they understand.
  • Be honest. Admit when you don’t know the answers, but say you’ll try to find out.
  • Discuss tragedy sporadically. It’s sometimes better to talk about events in shorter segments so kids can think about what they hear and then come back later to ask.
  • Find outlets to express feelings. Not all kids feel comfortable talking or may not have the words to convey their feelings. Offer creative outlets such as journaling, drawing, music, puppets, clay, or books to help them express their reactions.

K – Kindle empathy and do something positive. One of the best ways to reduce kids’ feelings of hopelessness is to find ways to comfort victims and help the affected community. Empathy is the answer to violence and cruelty. If you can feel for another, you can't act cruelly. It's what terrorists are trained NOT to have. One easy way to nurture empathy is to encourage your child to imagine being the people he sees on the news. Ask: How would you feel if that was you? What do you think she needs? His answers often promote constructive ideas. Then help him develop a positive course of action and offer to assist him in carrying it out. Here are ways to enhance children’s empathy towards victims and do something positive to make a difference in their world.

  • Share heroic, compassionate deeds. The news is filled with tales of heroic and caring deeds: share them with your child to help him see their world as caring. One father told me his family started nightly “Caring Reports” (random kind deeds people did for others) after the shooting at Columbine. It was how they helped their kids “look for the good” instead of only on the horror of the few who caused it.
  • Write a letter. Help your child draw, write, or email condolences to victims or express thanks to those who are helping.
  • Volunteer in an organization. Get involved as a family in a group committed to helping victims such as the Red Cross, Catholic Charities, or the United Way.
  • Collect or donate money. Send money to a charity dedicated to helping victims, establish a relief fund, or build a memorial. Kids can save money from their allowance, earn money by doing extra jobs, or collect it by holding fund-raisers.
  • Hang an American flag. Show children how a country displays solidarity by hanging our flag and discussing its’ symbolism.
  • Offer prayers. Attend a religious service as a family, pray together, or light a nightly candle to signify your family’s hopes for peace in the world and comfort for the victims and those who lost loved ones. Traditions are comforting for us all.

In spite of the horrors of this tragedy, we must give our children hope. Let's lift up the spirits of our kids so they don't see the world as all bleak. Start tuning into the glorious, compassionate stories of strangers who are aiding others -- firefighters, the ironworkers, the police, the colleagues who put strangers on their shoulders and walked them down 45 stories. Our kids need to hear those tales. By modeling empathy, compassion and tolerance, we can teach our children lessons that will help to build a better future for all of us. It’s certainly a future our kids deserve.

Resources for Further Action

American Psychological Association can provide a list of counselors and psychologists in your area. Call 800-964-2000. http:www.//aap.org

National Association of School Psychologists 4340 East West Highway, Ste 402,Bethesda, MD 20814 Telephone: 301-657-0270 (http://nasponline.org].

Dr. Michele Borba is an educational consultant and author who has conducted parent and teacher seminars to over half a million participants. Her latest book is Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing (Jossey Bass Publishers). Information on her publications and seminars can be accessed through her Web site, www.moralintelligence.com.

© 2001 by Michele Borba. Please contact for permission to reprint.
To book an interview with Dr. Borba contact Annie Leedom at (916) 939-8244 or anne@netconnectpublicity.com

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