Helping Children Through Tragedy

Parents want to keep our world safe and comfortable for our children. We work to  ensure that childhood is filled with laughter and good times. When events like the Boston Marathon tragedy occur, we struggle with our own feelings of fear and grief.  We want to keep our children out of the loop of such sad events, but realize they are feeling our tension and hearing bits and pieces of the details.

How do we manage our children’s ability to handle what they are hearing and feeling, when we are often at a loss to explain these things even to ourselves? The Hopkins early childhood staff would like to offer their thoughts on how to help parents navigate the difficult emotional terrain of a tragedy. 

Young children do not need a visual representation of tragedy. Visual images will really make an impression on them. When children are present keep your television turned off. Be aware that newspapers and magazines often have pictures that adults find hard to see, and children will really struggle with the horror of these real representations; keep these out of sight of your child. Often times what a child is capable of imagining about a scary event is much tamer than reality–until they see the realistic pictures and have to process the gore.

Even when we keep the visual items out of sight, we know that our young children will hear adults talking or get a sense of the event in some way. When you realize he has knowledge of the event, be open to hearing him talk about his feelings.  Don’t give him more information than he already knows.  Ask questions like “What have your heard about this? What are you thinking about that?” 

When you have conversations with your child about the event, focus on the helpers in the situation. When dealing with scary situations, children most want to know that they will be safe. Reassure them that the adults in their life will keep them safe. Focus on the people in the situation that helped others get help and stay safe. 

Children process their thoughts through play. If there has been a significant event in your child’s  life, or if he was emotionally grabbed by something, he will very likely use play as a way to think about it. This sort of play may happen for a long period of time. When you notice your child acting out a tragic event in his play, redirect the play to focus on the helpers of the event. Move his thoughts toward the help that people have been receiving, and act out with him what that likely looked like.

As children gather information about a tragedy they will naturally feel sad, scared or anxious about the event. Take the time to talk about these feelings, and work through strategies for dealing with their feelings.  Books can be a great help for this sort of emotional coaching.  Two books that the staff feel are especially helpful are:

  • When I Feel Scared by Cornelia Maude Spelman and Kathy Parkinson
  • Sometimes I Feel Awful by Joan Prestine

One more great resource for parents who are dealing with this truly difficult topic is offered through that legendary early childhood expert Fred Rogers. His  information and advice is timely and reassuring. 

There are many events we experience in our world that are so sad and tragic. We won’t have answers for our children–or for ourselves–about why these terrible things happen. Our job as a parent is to convey to our children that when bad things happen we can talk about them as a family and we will work to comfort each other and keep everyone safe.

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