Talking With Our Kids About Tragedy

This world is broken.

And because of the brokenness, bad things happen. Today, innocent people lost their lives in downtown Cincinnati. It happened in the building where I worked for years, less than 5 miles from my home. As I work with kids, when tragedy like this happens, I think about how this affects them. Because it does affect them. Little ears hear way more than we know. And they need our help in processing this hard and sometimes scary information. Here are some ideas that have helped me talk to my kids when tragedy occurs:

As parents, we’re the best ones to talk to our kids. We know our kids better than anyone. When their words are saying “I’m okay,” we’re able to read their faces, which may tell a different story. Even though we’re not an expert on counseling kids, we are an expert on our kids. Our kids need someone who knows them to help them process.

Ask follow-up questions. Years ago when our oldest was just two years old, she asked her dad, “How are babies made?” Thinking he was getting ready to give the sex talk to our toddler, he stalled by asking, “What do you mean?” She responded, “Do nurses use their hands or sticks to get babies out?” Whew. My husband told her that nurses use their hands, which totally satisfied her curiosity. Follow-up questions will help you determine what information your child needs. Some follow-up questions you could ask are: What did you hear or how did you feel when you heard that?

Let your kids guide the conversation. Listen and respond to what they are saying or what you think they are feeling. Talk as long as they want to talk. Don’t share details of what happened; instead focus on their concerns and feelings.

Validate their feelings. You can do this by saying, “It’s okay to feel mad” or “I’m sad, too.” When we let them know it’s okay to feel the way they are feeling (because there is no right or wrong way to feel) we help them process and open the door to more conversation. Do not tell them not to feel angry or confused or mad. That is not helpful. Help them walk through the feelings they are experiencing.

Be honest. Don’t tell them something that is not true. We can’t promise that this will never happen to them. You can tell them that we, as parents, will do everything we can to protect them. When we’re scared or sad, we can pray to God. He will listen and comfort us.

Watch what you say when little ears may be listening. Kids have an incredible sense of hearing. Keep that in mind when talking about the incident with other adults. While the information you’re sharing may be accurate, the details of the situation may not be age-appropriate for your kids to hear.

Use a journal or have your kids draw a picture. Last week my daughter was unable to verbally articulate what she was feeling and thinking about. But she was able to write it down. If you feel that your child may have more to say, encourage them to write or draw their thoughts and concerns.

Don’t try to explain why it happened. Sometimes things simply can’t be explained. Focus on what we do know. The incident is over. God is still good. We are safe. A verse I frequently use in talking to kids when I simply can’t explain why something happened is:

Now we see only a dim likeness of things. It is as if we were seeing them in a foggy mirror. But someday we will see clearly. We will see face to face. What I know now is not complete. But someday I will know completely, just as God knows me completely. 1 Corinthians 13:12 NIrV

I’ve even taken my kids into the bathroom and steamed up the mirrors to help illustrate this point. We may see pieces of what is going on, but here on Earth we aren’t able to see the whole picture or to fully understand.

Pray. Pray with your child for the people involved in the incident. Many times you’ll get an even better sense of what your child may be struggling with when praying with them. Also pray about their own fears or concerns. God wants to hear it all.

Keep talking. Don’t dwell on the situation, but keep the door open for further conversation. Let them know, in simple language, how you’re feeling. Kids are watching us to determine how they should respond.

As parents, we’d love to shield our kids from the ugliness and hurt in the world. That is simply not possible, but we have the amazing (and challenging) opportunity to help our kids process hard things and to build their faith as we trust God in the midst of challenges.

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