How to Respond to Children After a Tragedy | Helping Your Kids Process
This is something that I wrote a year or two ago, after a mass shooting that I honestly can't even remember anymore. I didn't post it at that time, but I am posting it now. It combines several ways of responding to children after tragedies that I've learned over my time as a therapist. A culmination of 3 years of grief work and several years of practicing ACT, and it applies to man-made and natural tragedies. It can be modified for any age child (or adult).
Step One: Ask Questions More Than Tell
Probe for what a child already knows or has heard about the situation. For younger children (10 and under), limit TV/Internet/Social Media contact with news reports that are showing wall-to-wall coverage of the tragedy or disaster, especially if they are repeating footage of the event.
Example Response: You know that [INSERT TRAGEDY] that just happened? What have you heard about it?
Respond consistently, factually, and matter-of-factly, at an age appropriate level. If you do not know specific details of the event respond honestly, and assure that the appropriate people are still looking into things and trying to understand. Also assure that you will follow up with them at a later time when more is known.
Step Two: Share your own internal experience openly and gently.
Sharing what your own thoughts and feelings were when you heard about the situation, and now, are important to model emotional vocabulary for your children.
Example Response: When I saw this, I noticed that I felt X, Y, Z. What do you notice about how you're feeling?
Step Three: Share what you tend to do in response to your own inner experience. Then share a workable strategy that you've used.
Let your child know that when you experience certain thoughts/feelings/sensations/memories/etc. you do or have done things in response to them (sort of like an automatic response). Sometimes those things haven't been so workable, and sometimes they have been. Share something you tend to do that has been less workable and then something you've done to help you "unhook".
Example Response: When I feel X, Y, Z, I sometimes catch myself doing [Unworkable behavior]. Then I remember to/that/how [Workable strategy].
The workable and unworkable strategies will be unique to you and your family. Here's one of mine: When I am feeling angry, I sometimes catch myself being rude to the people that are important to me. Then I remember that anger doesn't need to control me, and that I am in charge of how I want to treat people. So I apologize, and talk about how I'm feeling.
Step Four: Brainstorm Values Based Actions Together
Work together with your child and brainstorm some things that you can do in this moment, and down the road, that are action oriented, and helpful.
Example Response: I wonder if there is something we can do that would be helpful, even though we are way over here. What would be the most important thing to do right now that you can think of?
(Break down ways of helping into categories, and then into small actionable items. Educating others, Volunteering, Increasing understanding about a group or culture, Listening to Others, Helping a friend, Raising money, are some examples of categories that are useful.)
Step Five: Once Engaged in an Activity Process Feelings Through Questions
Once you and your child have brainstormed together and come up with a plan (which could be something as simple as writing cards to send to grieving families), inquire about how they are feeling in the current moment. Then, listen more than responding.
Example Response: What thoughts or feelings do you notice showing up right now?
Your questions should be coming from a place of genuine curiosity and gentleness.
Step Six: At the end of the day, or at a certain point in time, process the experience via laying it out in story form.
Creating stories is a powerful way of processing experience, this is vital for younger children.
Example Response: This morning/earlier this week [TRAGEDY HAPPENED], and you noticed that you were feeling X, Y, Z, then we talked about [TRAGEDY], and we thought about what would be important for us to do. Together, we came up with [VALUES BASED ACTIONS], and we noticed what thoughts and feelings showed up then. Now we are here [SAFE IN BED, ETC.], what do you notice now?
The aim here is to lay out the sequence of events in order, ending with the current moment. This storytelling process cements the journey of experience, and will be easily recalled next time there is a tragedy. "Remember when [TRAGEDY] happened three months ago? We did something back then, do you remember what we did together?"