Education is not a preparation for life but is life itself. - John Dewey

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Talking With Your Child About Tragedy

I write this post with a deep and primal sadness.  I am sitting with the news of the Newtown killings.  Trying not to move too quickly into doing, thinking, expressing.  Trying to just feel and honor the sadness.

However, I have two children.  So I must do, think, and express.  My husband and I want to be their primary contacts for information and concerns before their peers and instead of youtube.  I want this to be a time when we share our sadness, reaffirm our love, and discuss the many ways we protect and care for each other.

Here are some resources that I have found helpful as a parent and a professional to navigate this difficult and heartrending terrain. 

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has an excellent guide for discussing the shooting with your child.  It’s straightforward and simple.  NPR also has a page of advice, which is brief but good.

If your children range in age from pre-school to grade school/middle school, tailor your general conversation to the youngest, not the oldest.  Have separate conversations with your older children.  Explain to them the need to handle this differently for the younger siblings.  Ask for their leadership and cooperation with this.

VAIS has posted this reassuring and instructive article from Drs. Robert Evans and Mark Kline.  If your child is in a dual-household family, share these resources so you can create a common approach and common language.  Make sure that you and your co-parent(s) can agree on basics – media exposure and creating a safe and loving environment. 

If necessary, please try to characterize the shooter in terms that are clear to children, both young and old.  Using a simple descriptor such as “extremely dangerous” is less ambiguous to children (and more accurate) than “angry,” “upset,” or “mentally ill.”  We can get angry or upset when they put glitter glue on the dog.  We may have family members or friends who are mentally ill but not dangerous.  Explaining this difference can help children with their fears and uncertainty.

You may choose to discuss how important it is for all of us to get help when we need it – with our emotions and our behaviors.  I have explicitly talked with the 3rd-5th graders this year about Hero Bystanders.  When we notice any kind of dangerous behavior, we must report the situation to a trusted adult.  Especially if there are weapons involved.  This is not tattling but reporting.  This is helping someone OUT of trouble rather than getting someone INTO trouble.  In our community, when anyone is showing behavior that is dangerous to themselves or others, we must get help right away.

Remind your children that Sabot actively teaches kids how to safely express emotions and that we make sure children and adults get help from professionals when they need it – for problems big and small.  Help your child identify adults to go to for help at home and at school. 

The American Counseling Association has posted a factsheet about children’s responses to trauma and disasters.  If your child’s reactions begin to disrupt his ability to function, please contact a community professional.  Sabot parents can email me with questions and concerns.

Even if we do not know the bereft families personally, we still grieve for the loss of life.  Create or participate in a personal or community ritual to frame your mourning.  Visit your place of worship for a prayer service, vigil, or just to light a candle.  Join with others to walk the labyrinth or to meditate.  Group rituals can strengthen our connections in our community while lifting our spirits.

We are so blessed to live around the James River – my favorite place to remember the unending nature of life.  Be in nature.  Find a way to ground yourself in what is and always will be.  

Share with your child some small things that comfort you:  drinking a cup of tea, snuggling with a pet, reading a favorite book, listening to or making music, spending time with a friend, or holding someone’s hand.

You may choose to light a candle in your home to honor the lives that were lost.  If your children wish to participate, they can place artwork, poetry, a special bit of nature, or a toy by the candle.

Be sad.  Express.  Love.  Connect.


  1. Thank you Ann, this is a lovely guide to being with the sadness and helping ourselves and our children through something that no one should have to face.

  2. Thanks. I would not have known to couch some of our discussions constructively if I had not read this.

  3. Ann, I am so very grateful for the insights you share with us. Thank you.