When the world is struck with a catastrophic event, the instinct to shield our children from the effects of it is completely understandable. We want them to grow up believing that the world is pure and good and geared in their favour. We also want them to feel safe, and avoiding a discussion isn’t necessarily the way to make this happen.
Older kids and teens will know when something big has happened whether you’re the one who tells them or not. Knowing that something has happened, but not having anybody explain things, is a really scary thing to feel for any of us. Our kids are no different. We all need context and assurance and it’s the facts that will provide this.
All kids are different. They need different information to feel safe, they look for a different level of detail and they are impacted by different parts of the story.
Nobody will know your children better than you do, so it’s important to manage the conversation based on who they are, what they already know, and what it means for them.
With all children.
The most important question.
Whatever their age, there is likely to be one thought at the front of their minds, ‘What about me?’ This is normal and healthy and part of the way they process what has happened. They need to understand it in terms of what it means to them and for their own safety and wellbeing. Let this guide your response.
Let them know that what they’re feeling makes sense.
We’re all different and will respond to things in different ways. Whether they feel nothing at all or very deeply, let them know that whatever they’re feeling is completely okay. The only way through a feeling is straight through the middle, and this will only happen when there is gentle acceptance of whatever that feeling is. If they see that you can accept what they’re feeling, it will be easier for them to do the same.
Name what you see or hear from them.
They need to know that you get it otherwise the things you say will fall short of comforting them. Saying things like, ‘Oh don’t worry,’ or ‘Don’t be silly – nothing like that will happen here,’ though said with the best of intentions, can actually make them worry more. It might also cause them to feel shame which will only make them shut down. They’ll still feel what they’re feeling and think what they’re think but you just won’t find out about it. Whatever they’re feeling, let them know that you get it by reflecting it back to them, ‘I can see you’re feeling scared. That’s completely understandable. It’s a frightening thing to happen.‘
And help them to put it in context.
If they’re feeling scared, it will be because they’re noticing the similarities between themselves and the people who have been directly hurt – ages, families, the area they live in – though it might be happening out of their awareness. Explaining the differences between their circumstances and the circumstances around the event will help to ease their fear. ‘This has happened in a different place to where we live. Nothing like this has ever happened here.’ Or if you’re living where the trauma has happened, ‘When something like this happens, people work really hard to make sure that something like this never happens again. The people who do this are really great at what they do. They learn a lot about how it happened and the type of people who did it and they use that information to keep everyone safe.’
Ask directly what it is they’re worried about.
Trauma triggers all sorts of things in all of us. Sometimes these will directly relate to the event: How will they look after the people who have been hurt? Have they caught the bad guys? How did it happen? Could it happen here? Sometimes, it might be more indirect and unexpected. They might become scared of you dying or getting sick. They might worry about not being able to reach you when they need to, or of something happening while they are asleep or separated from you. Let them know that when something big happens, we can feel all kinds of things that don’t make sense but there are no silly feelings or silly things to think. Ask them what they’re thinking and give them permission to say anything they want to.
Let them know that they can come to you with questions, feelings, ideas and thoughts and that nothing is off-limits. Give them extra cuddles or an extra story. For older ones, spend extra time sitting on the edge of their bed at bedtime. They might raise things with you or they might not, but at least you’re there if they need to.
Let them see your compassion, empathy, and resilience.
It’s okay to let them know that you are sad for the people who have been hurt – this will nurture their empathy and compassion – but they also need to see your strength and capacity to cope with the news.
It’s okay not to have the answers they’re asking for.
Frightening world events don’t make sense to any of us. Your children might ask questions that you don’t know the answers to, such as ‘How did it happen?’ or ‘Why do some people do awful things?’ In these cases, ‘I don’t know,’ is a perfectly reasonable answer. Sometimes it’s the only one.
Remind them of the goodness in the world.
They need to have faith in the world and the people in it. Whenever there is trauma in the world, there are also remarkable demonstrations of solidarity and kindness, love and support for strangers. Let them hear these stories. We belong to a humanity that is good and kind. People who orchestrate traumatic events are acting against humanity, they’re not a part of it and when they strike, humanity always proves to be kinder, more generous, and stronger. Remind them.
Let them feel the arms of the world around them, too.
Let them know that when something like this happens, the world comes together to look after each other and that people from all over the world are working to make the world safer for them.
Being proactive in having the conversation with kids can ensure that you’re the one who sets the emotional tone for what has happened – not their friends, not social media and not the 6pm news. Show them that you have faith in their world and their ability to thrive in it.
According to age.
Again, all children are different, but in addition to the things mentioned above, here is a rough guide of extra things to think about according to age.
Up to 4 years.
Small children have trouble separating facts from fantasy, so for young ones, it might be best to shield them from things as much as you can. If they have questions it’s important to answer them but only in as much detail as you need to reassure them and help them feel safe.
Let your kids lead the conversation here. If they’re talking, that’s important. They want you to help them feel safe. On the surface they’ll be asking what happened, but the driving force will be understanding what it means for them. How does it affect them? Could it happen to them? What if it happens to someone they love? How do you know it won’t happen? Does this mean we should never go anywhere else?
They’ll be looking for comfort and your answers and your willingness to talk to them will give them this. Give them the details they ask for, but you don’t need to give them more than that. Don’t lie to them or avoid their direct questions. They’ll be able to tell when you’re not being upfront and this will only make it more difficult to take comfort from your answers. They need to know that you fully understand what has happened and that you aren’t just saying whatever you ned to say to make them feel better.
Because a lot of their lives happens when we aren’t there – through social media, at school, at friends’ houses – it’s difficult to know exactly how much they understand about what’s happening or what they’re worried about. Listen and they will usually show you. It will be in their questions or their misunderstandings or the incidental things they say along the way. The most important thing is letting them know that you’re there for them if they need to talk or ask questions.
They’re starting to think about things in creative, abstract ways so it can be difficult to anticipate what they’re thinking or feeling. Sometimes the way they think will surprise you.
Whatever they’re thinking is important and valid – let them know that. Let them know that this sort of thing is confusing for everyone and there’s absolutely nothing they can say or think that would be silly. What’s important is that you are there to clear up any misunderstandings or misperceptions, and give them a balanced view of what has happened. ‘It’s tragic what has happened, and I understand why you feel the way you do. The world is still a good place and you still have as much reason to feel safe now as you did before this happened.’
There is no formula for how people react in these situations. Given that the emotional centres of their brains are developing at a heightened rate during adolescence, it might be that they show a greater intensity of fear, anger or sadness. They might also show no emotion at all to the news. That’s completely okay and is nothing to worry about. People feel things and respond to things in all different ways.
Open the way for them to talk, but don’t push them if they don’t want to, ‘Did you hear about what happened? Is there anything you were wondering about or would like to talk about?’ Let them know that it doesn’t matter if there isn’t but that you’re there if they need to chat about it.
Above 14 years.
They’ll most likely be hearing a lot of information through friends and social media, so it’s important to make sure the information they have is accurate. Ask them if they’ve heard about what happened and what they know about it.
By this age, they’ll be starting to separate from you and turning to their peers to meet their needs. Don’t worry at all if they don’t want to talk about things. When they need comfort or conversation, it’s very normal for them to turn to their friends. They might want to spend more time with them or they might seem even more attached to their phone. People feel safest in groups, and at this age, their friendship groups are everything. They won’t necessarily be wanting to be with their friends to talk about things, it’s just how they find stability and comfort, which they might be in need of if the world seems crazy for a while.
Catastrophic events don’t make sense to any of us. You don’t have to have the answers so if you don’t know, it’s okay to say that. Don’t say things you don’t believe and don’t give them empty platitudes. They’re too smart and it will cheapen everything else you say. Let them know that you wish you had the answers and that you wish you could say nothing like this will happen again but that you can’t say that – nobody can. Let them know that these things are rare and remind them how their situation is different.
Share how you feel, but don’t look to them for comfort. It will be comforting for them to know that you feel the things they feel, but that need to know that you also feel safe and strong and that you have faith in the world and its people.
Sometimes, with this age group it is best to have these sort of conversations when they don’t have to make eye contact – while you are in the car together or while you’re cooking dinner. Others might like to feel you close. Let them take the lead on that.
And finally …
When the world breaks the light pours in. It’s always been this way. There will always be those who try to assault our humanity, but they are not the ones who are a part of it. The truth is that we belong to a humanity that is good and kind and stands solid against those who act against it. This is what our children need to know.
There’s something else they need to know. When things happen out of our control, it can feel disempowering for all of us – the questions, the helplessness, the lack of control over what happened. Give them back their power by letting them know that they have a vital role in building a world that is safe and good to be in. Empower them by letting them know that their voice, their thoughts, and the way they are in the world all matter. They need to know that it’s because of them and people like them that the spirit of love, kindness and compassion will always be stronger than anything that tries to weaken it.