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How do we talk to our kids in the aftermath of tragedy?

June 15, 2016

It’s hard to know what to say to each other, ourselves, but especially, our children. On Sunday, June 11, 2016, we all woke up to news that there was a horrific mass shooting- and for those of us in Central Florida, it was right in our own backyard.

My family and I live not ten minutes away from the nightclub where the shooting happened. I work less than five minutes away from it. We could hear the news helicopters from our front yard on Sunday morning. For the first time I have come to understand the overwhelmingly sad and scary feeling of an attack occurring in one’s own neighborhood. We saw the restaurants and shops that we frequent in the background of the live footage on the national news. 

It’s hard enough as an adult to make sense of such a hateful act, one that followed another tragic event where the life of a talented young singer was lost just one day before, but what about our kids?

How do we talk to and support our kids through a tragedy such as this one?

Years ago, I stumbled across a quote from Fred Rogers, as in television’s Mister Rogers. It says,

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Fred Rogers

I tucked that quote away in my mind and have thought of it every time a senseless act of violence takes place that has to be talked about. I have been going back to it in my mind over and over since Sunday morning. I personally have found myself looking for the helpers.

Look for the helpers

There are the brave souls that were in the club that morning- those who helped and supported each other through the horrific chain of events they were forced to endure. There are the police officers that risked their lives to put a stop to the violence and the doctors, nurses, EMTs, and medical staff that worked tirelessly to save dozens of lives. There are the leaders who have provided strength, encouragement, and hope to a shaken city.

And yet- there are even more helpers to be found. There were more than 1,000 people standing in line to donate blood on Sunday morning. Midday Monday, the lines were still going strong. There were the people that brought snacks, drinks, and sunscreen to the people waiting in those lines. There were people that shared updates on and requests about friends and family on social media. There are people organizing mental health counseling, vigils and memorials. The list goes on and on. These people are our helpers. These are the people and events we want our kids to see and to know about.

For those of us in Central Florida, this time we are not just watching anonymous people trying to do good on television. We know who they are. I know my friends who have given and have tried to give blood. I know who is rearranging their schedules and lives to provide crisis counseling to those who have witnessed unspeakable horrors. 

My son knows who they are, too.  He is seeing the parents of his friends and family members reach out to help. That is powerful. That is strong. That is love. 

Fred Rogers’s mother was right. Finding the helpers brings our children peace. Finding them reminds the kids that there are good people in this world, people that will risk their lives to save others, people who will give their time, their money, their wisdom, and their kindness to bring comfort and help to others.

A few more thoughts on how to help kids

For those children directly affected by this tragedy, their needs will be unique. They will be grieving and will need time and support to recover. There is a good chance that they will benefit from counseling, either in groups or individually. This will give them the opportunities to express their concerns and feelings. In group counseling settings, they will be able to connect with others who have had similar experiences. 

Talk about it

Mom Comforting Teenage Girl

For kids that are not personally affected in the traditional sense, they may or may not come to you to talk. Take the lead and provide them with a brief explanation about what is going on. That may be all they need to know. If your child has questions, answer them. Use your judgment and common sense.  Kids don’t need to know what they don’t need to know, but they may be curious about “why” and “how” something like this could happen. Honest, open and careful dialogue is best. A five-year-old is going to want to know different things than a 12-year-old. Giving age-appropriate answers and information is best. Be mindful of your television and internet use. Some kids may be frightened by images that they see on T.V. and limiting their access to that information will be helpful to them.

Tell them they are safe

Remind kids that they are safe and that adults at their homes, schools, and summer camps are always working to keep things as safe as possible. Are we living in a world that seems to be getting more and more violent?  It certainly feels that way, but regardless of that, our kids will likely continue to live life as normal (or at least a new normal) this summer. As parents, we might be on high alert. We might feel the need to be extra vigilant and aware in the coming months and going forward, but our kids don’t need to live in unnecessary fear.

Let them express their feelings and concerns

Encourage your child to talk to you. Some sadness, worry, and anger is normal. However, if these feelings persist for a long period of time, your child may need extra support from a mental health professional. This is not unusual after an event of this magnitude. It is better for kids to have the opportunity to express their concerns and feelings, rather than be told to move on or “don’t worry about it.”

Care for their caregivers

Lastly, don’t forget about yourself.  Caring for ourselves is just as important as caring for others. Seek out support and help for yourself as you grapple with yet another horrible, senseless tragedy. We are better moms and dads when we remember to meet our needs, as well as our kid’s needs.

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