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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Explaining tragedy to children

We do our best to shield our kids from the evils of the world. We change the subject of our conversations when our kids enter the room, we gloss over questions that lead to difficult answers and we tone down the effects of tragedy when they hear about them. What we can't do is monitor their conversations 24/7, they are little detectives and know more than they let on.

Thursday night D and I watched in horror as the disaster in Japan unfolded on live television. Watching the devastation was difficult, knowing the outcome of such horrible events we hoped that the fatalities would be low. We went to bed praying for the people of Japan and are still keeping them in our thoughts.

This brought me to back last year and the Haiti earthquake. It was the first time K asked about a disaster. I was truthful with her and explained what happened. She immediately wanted to help and I showed her all the ways she could do that. We collected items and went to the store to buy the things requested for her school's charity drive. We also went through our closets and found dozens of pairs of shoes to donate to a shoe drive. It made us both feel better and it taught K a lesson about helping others.

I was sent this link via our school message board. It comes from the Uncommon Parenting Blog. It might be of help to those of you looking for advice on how to deal with the current tragedy in Japan:

Explaining World Tragedy to Children
by Chick Moorman & Thomas Haller

Your six-year-old has just seen video of people buried under demolished buildings. Your teen sits transfixed watching images of the aerial view of the earthquake’s vast devastation. At the dinner table your 5th grader asks, “Can anything like that happen to us, dad?”

How is a parent to respond? How do you deal with your child’s fears without increasing them? Is it possible to reassure your child at a time when you, yourself, are horrified by the images of intense grief you see in the hearts and on the faces of parents half way around the world? Is it possible to use this incredibly tragic situation to help your children learn lessons of love, compassion, and of the indestructible nature of the human spirit?

Once children have seen the images of tragedy and suffering it is necessary to debrief it with them. The sooner the better. By debriefing, we mean answering their questions, providing information, asking questions, and reflecting their feelings.

Provide the scientific information for which they are asking. Tell your children in age appropriate language what you know about how nature can create an earthquake. Keep this part factual. You can even use books or magazines to assist you in providing information.

Tell your children the effects of the natural disaster. Talk about the destruction that was created as a result of nature’s fury. Limit what you say to what was seen on TV or directly questioned by your children. Too much information at this point can increase their fright and worry. Be brief, accurate, and provide them with the specific information for which they are looking. If you fail to give them information, children’s brains will fill in the blanks. Better to fill in those gaps yourself with factual knowledge than to have your children fill them with their imaginations.

Concentrate on feelings. Your children will be seeing a wide variety of feelings expressed on TV. In addition, they will personally be full of unexpressed and often unrecognized feelings.

When you sense they are feeling empathy, sadness, or pain, say so. Tell them, “You seem deeply saddened about this,” or “You sound scared and frightened that this might happen to us.” Children are starving for feeling recognition and this is a great time to supply it.

When strong emotion is shown on TV, honor it by talking about it. Mention the extreme sadness and grief that is shown there. Refrain from being an adult who ignores the grief of others. Do not treat hurting human beings like they are invisible. Talk about your feelings. Tell your children about the sympathy, empathy, and pain you feel for the loss of others. Allow your children to hear and see you express feelings. In so doing, you are helping them acquire a feeling vocabulary that they can use their entire lives.

When you communicate your feelings and honor the feelings of your children for people around the world, you teach them important lessons about the human condition. You help them appreciate how we are all more alike than different. You help them see that we are all connected, no matter how distant we seem.

As you go through this debriefing process, encourage your children to look for the helpers. Helpers always come. There are always people who step forth to help. In the case of a major tragedy there will be many helpers, playing out a variety of roles. Point them out to your children. When small problems occur in their own lives they will have learned to look for the helpers.

Discuss with your children how you as a family can be helpers during this tragedy. Perhaps you can send money, give blood, say prayers, or send love. Choose one or more ways to be helpers as a family and allow your children to help implement that strategy. Get them involved in the process of being a helper. Let them see and be love in action.

The scope and depth of the pain and heartache of catastrophic tragedies like the recent earthquake in Haiti are not measurable. Yet, those same horrific events can be used for good if we help our children learn about feelings, look for the helpers, appreciate the connectedness of all human beings, and the beauty of one heart reaching across borders to another. We can help them learn that around the world is a long way away and still very much a part of our neighborhood.

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