Newton, Connecticut. Boston, Massachusetts. West, Texas. Moore, Oklahoma. Recent tragedies have broken our hearts as so many others before, but some of these have been different. They invaded the lives of young children – little ones that looked a lot like our little ones. And because there were children involved, our kids are going to be asking a lot of questions.
As parents, one of our primary roles is to be constantly teaching. When it comes to “Life 101,” class is always in session. This doesn’t change in the midst of tragedy, as awkward as the role may be. Most kids are asking the same innocent question that we all ask – “Why?” – and our ability to respond correctly can help turn a terrible situation into an opportunity to talk about some tough-but-necessary topics.
As a father of three and a pastor and author who has dedicated two decades to helping parents, I am still left wanting for the right words to say in such an awful situation. Still, I’ve learned a few things along the way, and hopefully these ideas will help you navigate this difficult road with your children:
• Remind them that they can trust God – even in tough times. Consider saying, “Sometimes things happen that we can’t completely understand. We know that bad things happen in this world because there are bad people. But it doesn’t mean God doesn’t care about those little children. In fact, that’s why Jesus came – so He could rescue us from evil and be with Him some day in a perfect place!”
• Pray for everyone involved. We do this, most importantly, because God hears our prayers and answers them. But prayer also does something else: it reminds us that God is with us, and that He can help in ways that no one else can.
• Don’t act like you have all the answers. They won’t believe you anyway if you start making stuff up. It’s okay to say, “You know what? That’s a good question, but a hard one. I’ve wondered that too.” But follow it up by sharing something that you DO know. You don’t have to pretend to be certain about everything if you can demonstrate that they can be certain about many things: your love for them, God’s love for them, the fact that you will do everything you can to protect them, that their schools are safe – and will be even safer – after this, etc.
• Listen and don’t ignore questions or inquiries. Pay attention to even the most passing comments. If your child knows anything about what happened, you can count on the fact that he’s thinking about it, and you want to be ready to talk when he is.
• Keep life normal and routine. Young children always fare better when life is as stable as possible.
• Sharply limit media exposure in young children, and be there to explain what is seen. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that “overexposure to the media can be traumatizing. It’s unwise to let children or adolescents view footage of traumatic events over and over. Children and adolescents should not watch these events alone.” Kids may have a hard time discerning that only one gunman went into only one school, for example, when they see reports for hours on end on different channels as they’re looking over your shoulder.
After you take those initial steps, you have an opportunity to proactively use a tough situation as a teachable moment. Point out the good things that can happen:
• Place emphasis on the heroes of the events – emergency personnel, teachers, and other students. Perhaps write a letter of encouragement to people who worked to help from the area police departments.
• Seek out stories about the people who are working to help the families who have been hurt by this tragedy – churches, doctors, and even school personnel. Talk about how wonderful it is that people are willing to help others.
• Share the ways that your local schools have announced they are working to improve security. Almost every school district made some sort of statement about the tragedy. You can find most of these statements online at your school’s or school district’s website.
• Help kids find ways to help – let them come up with creative ways!
• Finally, look for any signs that might indicate high levels of anxiety in your child. Remember: what we see as replay footage or something horrific that happened in another town, our children may interpret as something that keeps happening very close to home. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology points to the following symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in kids:
o Refusal to return to school and “clinging” behavior
o Persistent fears related to the catastrophe
o Sleep disturbances such as nightmares, screaming during sleep and bedwetting.
o Abnormal behavior problems.
o Withdrawal from family and friends.
If you start to see any of these behaviors in the following week, it might be worth a call to your doctor, pastor, or school counselor to inquire about some additional help.
It is almost overwhelming to take in the magnitude of the tragedy that has taken place in multiple locations over the past few months. It’s even more challenging when children hear that it involved children just like them. It makes me angry that such conversations have to take place. As a Christian, I’m grateful for the promises of something better – because Christ has overcome the evil in the world and will one day eradicate evil, sin, sickness, war, and death from this earth. In the meantime, God has put moms, dads, grandparents, and mentors like you in their path to remind them everything will be okay.