At the time, our 13-year-old dog, Dooley, was dying of cancer. My husband and I decided to tell our kids, then seven and five, about Dooley’s illness and its inevitable terminal outcome. I remember pulling our minivan into the garage with the two of them sitting in the captain’s chairs immediately behind me. I turned off the engine and said, “Guys, Dooley is very sick and it’s a kind of sickness that he most likely won’t get better from.” They wanted to know if Dooley was going to die, and I told them that he was. “And it is sad and unfair, and you might feel like crying or get ting mad, and that’s ok. The best we can do is love Dooley and let him know what a good dog he is.” They took the news well and filled Dooley’s remaining weeks with enough honest love and understanding to assure us we had handled the situation correctly.
We do not always get the opportunity to choose what tragedies we engage in with our kids. Ruthless events like this past July’s shooting at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings and the epochal events of September 11, 2001 charge into our lives and steal our carefully orchestrated peace of mind. In the shadow of these tragedies, our most mundane activities –going to work, to school, to the movies – echo with danger. So if, in those moments we can control, we seek to protect our kids from the harsher emotions, how do we help them in these instances that are out of our control?
Construct an individual approach. First and foremost, it is important as you navigate these issues to keep in mind your child’s age and personality type as these will shape your approach. A child’s understanding of events outside of their immediate experience depends on their age. Extremely young children might not even be aware of events in the larger world whereas preschoolers, who tend to personalize things, may worry that these events are unavoidable and will happen to them. Children who tend to worry will need a different strategy than those who are more assured. Asking a child balanced questions like “What do you think of this?” or “What comes up for you when you hear about this?” allows them to mold the conversation to their specific concerns.
Listen to and empathize with your child’s fear. We have either done it or seen it done. From a dark bedroom, a diving board or the threshold of a new classroom comes a child’s declaration of fear, and the parent immediately responds with, “There is nothing to be afraid of.” As parents, we worry that in acknowledging our children’s fears, we are making them fearful. We want the opposite – kids who are brave, courageous, undaunted. Those sterling qualities, though, rest on recognizing fear and moving through it; generally, we find people who act without consideration of a situation’s extenuating circumstances to be reckless and rash. These tragic events scare even us; we can understand. Affirming a child’s fear goes a long way in helping them work through it.
Provide reassurance. It can take many forms – a hallway light left on through the night, a teddy bear, a special text or family pizza night – but reassurance is key to helping kids process traumatic events. Just maintaining the family routine can have a soothing effect on children during a crisis. The particular form should be something both parent and child can reasonably carry out. I have a friend whose son had a hard time adjusting to the noise and chaos on his bus ride to and from middle school. He asked her to drive him. Torn, she agreed. After a week and a half, he announced that he no longer needed her to drive him. As much as it may seem otherwise at times, our kids want to become independent adults; periodically, though, they need assistance over the rough patches. Honoring a child’s need for reassurance restores their trust in others, a salve in tumultuous times.
Limit media coverage. I will be eternally grateful to my local public television station for keeping its schedule of children’s programming intact on September 11. Every other station had given its programming over to live coverage of the terrorist attacks, and it was a haven for me as a parent that day. Eleven years later, our digital environment has changed drastically. Between iPads and smartphones – not to mention school-approved Internet access – media exposure saturates our existence. We certainly have situations where we need to know the latest information but, as parents, we must be attuned to how much and what kind of information we let into our lives and our children’s lives. The 24-hour news cycle has to talk about something, and will either keep repeating what they already know or start speculating about what they do not know. Repeated exposure to images of violence, fear and panic are stressful. Young children, in particular, may not realize that news footage gets replayed and will believe, instead, that the events shown are happening over and over.
Model composure and strength. One night this summer, a severe summer storm passed through our area. I was brushing my teeth when I heard wind gusts that were unlike any storm I had ever heard. Panic crept in me like a dog slinking up onto a forbidden couch. Right then, my younger son, wide-eyed, came into my bathroom. The winds had woken him up. “Is that a tornado?” he whispered, tornadoes being his worst weather fear.
Now, I had one voice in my head going absolutely nuts, shouting dire warnings about mad-dashing it to the basement like Helen Hunt in that last scene of “Twister.” However, giving voice to my panic would only enflame my son’s. In the most controlled, optimistically firm voice I could muster, I said, “That does sound strange, doesn’t it, buddy? Let’s go check the computer and see if we have any severe weather warnings.” We are the filter for our kids; we set the tone. It is possible and important to share honestly our trepidation and our fear with our kids while remaining under control.
Nurture compassion and hope. This can be a tall order when faced with significant tragedy; however, even in the midst of chaos, we can gather evidence that compassion and hope exist. Acts of hatred and violence displace but never obliterate these shining qualities. The stories of people who rise to the occasion – the fire crews, nurses, doctors, regular citizens who help those in need – resuscitate us. They bring us back to the hope of ourselves as good people trying to do good things. Pointing these stories out to our kids helps them focus on how resilience and strength remain present in the world.
The great paradox of parenting is knowing that your child will have to experience pain, disappointment and failure in order to be healthy, happy and successful. When we give our kids ways to engage their fears without being overwhelmed by them, we give them an opportunity to develop the very qualities that insure their well-being. We give them the opportunity to live above fear’s grasp. Certain situations and events may require more expertise than parents have at the ready. If your child remains in a heightened state of anxiety for more than two weeks, seek the help of a professional therapist.
Special thanks to Joyce M. Meagher, LPC, whose expertise in children’s issues helped in the writing of this article.
Jessamyn Ayers writes and lives in Loudoun County with her husband and two children. Her perfect day includes some combination of reading, writing, running, working her dogs and baseball. In addition to her fiction writing, she maintains the blog "The Curveball Contingent" (curveballcontingent.blogspot.com).