Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How can I explain tragedies to my children?

Sadness and suffering are one of those things we parents often feel the need to hide from our children.  We think that we need to protect them from pain in the world.  When events like 9-11 or a death in the family occur we often attempt to distract our children or send them away, telling them the bare minimum of what they NEED to know.  We then wait in dread for the questions they will ask.  I would like to encourage you to reconsider this approach.  

Sadness and suffering are a part of life.  There is not a person out there that can fully avoid it.  Your child will face the loss of friends, pets, family and even you some day.  As parents it is one of our responsibilities to prepare them to deal with these losses in effective and healthy ways.  That is why I believe it is best to be open and honest about the sadness you feel when tragedy strikes.  

When I talk with my child and those in my care about tragedies, I try hard to strike a balance between hiding my own pain and scaring them too much.  I want to give them enough information to help them understand what has happened and why everyone around them is sad.  However, I don’t want them to be terrified of all the “could happens” in life.  I don’t want to scare them so much that they are afraid to leave my side or jump at any sound. 

My grandfather died not long ago, a man my daughter knew well.  It was sudden but he was in the hospital for a few days before he passed.  I knew I needed to explain to her why mommy and daddy were going to be gone so much and why they were so sad.  I believed it would be better for her in the long run if she was able to see him one last time. I was well aware that seeing her grandfather lying in a hospital bed with wires and tubes all over him would taint her perspective of what a hospital was for.   If in the near future she had to go to the hospital for stitches or a broken bone she would remember this event.  However, I knew that we would be able to deal with that when it happened.  That weekend, she needed to be present for at least some of this family event.  The temporary concern she had would, in the end, be a good for her.  From it she would learn that people get sad and worried but that through crying and sadness, the constant pain gets better and eventually goes away.   

The truth is she had a few rough weeks.  Part of that was due to the fact her daddy and I were very busy and distracted and part of it was her trying to make sense of what she saw and heard.  She made several comments through the week that made it obvious to us that she did not fully understand what we had said but that also made it clear she was attempting to understand and deal with it. 

What you tell a child in this type of event, whether it be a death in the family or a national tragedy, greatly depends on a few things.  What your belief about God or afterlife is, and what developmental level your child is and how sensitive he is.  And this does not just mean what age your child is.  One 4 year old might be able to hear in detail about a tornado that destroyed a town and another 4 year old might be terrified by hearing much beyond – a big storm came and broke a lot of things. 

I cannot tell every person reading this today what to say, I wish it were that simple.  There are too many variables that go into deciding what to say.  You as parents or caregivers know your children’s development level, what scares them and what faith you want to instill in them.  If you would like help with making this decision you can always contact me for a coaching session. 

The moods we have around our children become the moods they feel.  Whether you tell your child what you're sad about or not, your child is going to feel sad.  Being open and honest about why you are sad will help your child develop the emotional tools to get through loss and tragedy in the future.  As you openly work through your stages of grief your child will witness first hand a healthy way to deal with his grief. 


Cindy Wilkinson said...

Marcia, I love your words of wisdom about sharing our feelings and sadness with children. I have training as both a hospice volunteer and a stephen minister. We learned in that training that our culture pressures us to sweep things under the rug as we deal with grief today. Many of those people will then have far deeper issues later in time. Children benefit from seeing adults in their life expressing emotions, whether it is joy or sadness. Thanks for sharing your caring perspective on this topic!

Kirstie said...

I couldn't agree with you more. When my oldest was just over 2, his brother was born too early and died 8 days later. We were, and continue to be, very open with him in grieving and talking things through. We told him before the funeral that everyone would be sad and crying but that we would all help each other and it wouldn't always be that way.