On the evening of Dec. 14, hours after the tragic killings of innocents in Connecticut, Mercy Children’s Hospital Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Duru Sakhrani participated in an expert panel on KSDK on how to communicate with children during times of tragedy. How should we discuss situations like the death of a loved one, a pending divorce, or the loss of a home? Here are some of her tips.
Have as many facts ready as possible when you talk with your child. Children tend to fill in missing details with their imagination, so be factual and complete. Be prepared to answer questions raised by your child, but be careful to not offer unnecessary or unwanted information. Use simple terms. Be consistent and avoid conflicting messages.
Choose the right moment and place. Ideally, you should try to share bad news toward the end of the day. Your child will have a shorter time to dwell on the bad news before bedtime. Talk in a comforting place and when you have adequate time.
Talk to your child about what this means to her personally. Talk about how her life may change. Understand that your child reasons in an immature way. Don’t interpret your child’s behavior or thoughts as selfish, but try to understand what this situation means to her.
Allow time for his grief and feel free to share your own grief. Grief may be a new emotion for your child. This may be the first significant loss or time of turbulence in his life. Don’t rush your child or minimize his emotions. Reassure him that it’s OK to be angry or sad. Help him address his emotions. Seek professional help, if necessary.
Use distraction. This is never a bad idea when dealing with children. Keep your child busy, but not so busy that he doesn’t have time to discuss or grieve over the loss.
Children of varying ages will react differently and need different approaches. Those younger than 5 may not understand what you are saying. They aren’t insensitive or uncaring; they just may not be old enough to understand. Don’t be surprised if children between the ages of 6 and 9 blame you for the loss. It’s hard for them to understand that bad things just happen. Books about this experience may help them realize they’re not alone.
Young adolescents are emotionally adaptable but it may be especially hard for them to accept loss. Their reactions may be accentuated. Often, children this age won’t talk with their parents, but will talk with another adult. Reach out to their other adult contacts so they know the situation. Older teens may ask for more details and don’t be shocked when they reach out to the Internet for information. Remember that older teens still don’t have full life experience. They may begin or increase risky behaviors.
I hope we never need to address a situation as tragic as the Sandy Hook shootings. But I hope these tips will provide some assistance when you have to talk with your children about more common issues in your daily life.