It rained a lot on Monday night. According to reports, nearly two inches fell — quite a bit of rain for Horsham, Pennsylvania.
It meant that my wife had to budget extra time on Tuesday morning to get my son to his school in Princeton, an hour away. The wind and rain also knocked out the power at The Quaker School for almost an hour. (The students handled the change with admirable flexibility, and we were all happy to see the lights turn back on.)
While the rain and wind caused us all some inconvenience, I cannot fathom what would occur if 10 times this amount of rain fell in one event. My mind reels when I wonder what it must be like for schools in Puerto Rico, which have been without power for a month since Hurricane Maria.
Sometimes we, as adults, have trouble wrapping our heads around the magnitude of the suffering we see in the news. But what must it be like for our children to process these events — especially when our children have complex challenges?
You, like me, may be wondering how you can guide and support your children when confronted by fear, grief and tragedy. Here are six ways to help your children cope with bad news:
#1: Don’t shield your children from the news.
J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote this: “The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.”
You can’t protect your children from the news, but you can control how they learn about it. Whenever possible, try to be the one who breaks difficult news to your children; it’s better if they hear it from you, rather than see it on television, read it online or learn about it from their friends.
You can give them the facts, avoiding the game of Telephone that often results when news is spread through rumor.
During this conversation, avoid euphemisms, be direct and let them know as plainly as you can what happened. Do not be afraid to tell them you don’t have all the answers.
#2: Model calmness.
Talking to children about tragedy isn’t easy. It is critical for parents to set the temperature of the conversation. Do not let your child’s anxiety heighten your own, because anxiety is socially mediated; if you are too anxious, you can make things worse.
Check in with yourself before beginning the conversation and remain in control. Try to stay cool and calm — your child will pick up on your placidity. This does not mean you cannot show grief; you should. You should also, however, model controlling your worries.
#3: Restrict your child’s media intake.
While you should not completely shield your children from tragic news, it’s a good idea to limit their access to TV and online news organizations.
Cable channels and blogs make money by heightening our anxieties, so we feel compelled to check back in with them for more information. This is hard enough for us adults to manage. It can be overwhelming for children.
#4: Have an honest conversation.
Listen to your children. What are they worried about? Their fears may not be the same as yours, so pay attention to their worries and take those concerns to heart.
When you’re reassuring them, be careful with your words. Do not make promises like, “this will never happen here” or “I will keep you safe.” The truth is, tragedy can happen, and as much as you may want to, you cannot always keep your children from it. You want your children to know you are being genuine.
#5: Help your children talk about their feelings.
When tragedy strikes, your children may need help putting their emotions into words. Expressing feelings is difficult. Listen carefully to what your children are telling you with their words and their actions.
It may help to give them a vocabulary for how they may be feeling. Start the conversation by offering them options: “It appears to me you are feeling…” And see what they say.
#6: Give your child a developmentally appropriate way to help.
After Hurricanes Irma and Maria, my children and I gathered together items from our cabinets and pantry, and then we went to Target to buy pharmaceuticals for a family in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We boxed up the goods, my son wrote the label, my daughter signed the note and we brought the box to the post office together.
I like to think they now have a better understanding of the needs of people affected by a hurricane; that they know they have a responsibility toward those less fortunate than themselves; and that they feel empowered to help.
Disasters will always be in the news; neither you nor your children can avoid that. You can, however, show your children how to appropriately respond to tragic news and how to help others (and themselves) by reaching out to those who are affected.
Have more tips for how to talk to your children about tragedy in the news? Add your ideas to the comments below, or over on Facebook.