Talking to Your Children About Tragedy
It is the seventh week of the new year, and the US today endures the eighth school shooting in as many weeks, in a country that buries over a thousand children every year to gun violence. While Montessorians look forward to a peaceful future, in which no one's children are hurt at school, in which no one's children grow up to find solace in a gun, until that day, it falls to each of us to help comfort and protect the children in our care in the meantime.
First, tend to your own heart. While these acts of violence seem to occur too often for us to be surprised by them anymore, it would be naive to think that our own spirits are not affected when the unspeakable becomes commonplace. Let yourself feel what you are feeling in response to the tragedy. Cry or yell or shake or whatever. But do it in the company of other adults, and let yourself feel what you are feeling first away from your child. Don't pretend that these tragedies don't affect you. Instead, process. Grieve. Pray. Experience this sadness and connect with other adults who can experience it with you.
Protect your children from unfiltered exposure to the news. Turn off the TV. Turn off your radio. Even if your child is old enough to understand the details of a tragedy, you should still decide which details in what media are appropriate.
If your child is under the age of eight and unlikely to be exposed to news of a tragedy from other friends or sources, avoid talking about it with other adults or older children in their company. Children in early childhood do not benefit from being told of these events unless they are individually affected by them and, more importantly, they will struggle to make sense of them within their developing understanding of the world.
If your young child is personally affected or likely to hear about an event from other sources, keep your description simple and focused on the helpers. Remember Mr. Rogers' advice, "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,’” and remind your young child that, even in the face of very scary events, there are always people who are there to help. Be prepared to offer a simple, one or two sentence explanation of what's happened. " Some people were hurt at their school. Their families are very sad, and their whole community is coming together to help them feel better again." You might think through questions your child may ask, but hold back from offering more details than they ask for and, instead, focus on how many people come out to lift each other up in the wake of a tragedy.
Your elementary aged child needs only enough information to know that you are listening to their questions and taking them seriously, with an intentional re-focusing on the helpers and positives. Again, offer only those details that they ask for and, consistently, reassure your child that they are surrounded by loving adults who want to keep them safe. Limit exposure to mass media until the 24-hour news coverage of these events has passed. While your elementary aged child never needs to have open access to TV or the internet, in the first few days following tragic events, you should be even more diligent about protecting them from unedited access. Even those websites that are generally child-friendly may have news or details in their advertisements or sidebars in these early days. Use this as a reminder to turn off your devices, turn off your screens, and spend time with your child in real, hands-on activities that allow you to connect as a family and surround your child with a real community.
Older children are likely to hear of these events whether you share them directly or not. For tweens, it's wise to ask them if they've heard and what they've heard, and then to tailor your response based on the exposure they've already experienced. If your older child has already heard, ask them how they're feeling about what they've heard and what questions they have to remind them that they are safe. Answer their questions simply, with a focus on their safety and on the people on whom they can rely in scary situations. Ask them what they need to understand to feel safe. For older children, this is also a time to remind them of your own commitment to peaceful resolution. Assure them that, in your family, you hope to offer a space for people who are angry to talk out their anger. Remind them, too, that when they are angry, it's ok to talk to you or to another trusted adult to find a solution. This is a time to affirm to your child that you condemn these actions and that you believe, if we work together, we can prevent them in the future.
Teenagers are the most likely to have learned about these events at school, or from friends or their own access to media. And they are most likely to express frustration at a sense of helplessness in the face of these tragedies. Take that seriously. While your teenage child may describe their frustration in wide generalizations, understand that what they are asking for is some evidence that they have agency even in the face of tragedy. Answer their questions honestly and ask them what they want to do, either locally or on a larger scale, to feel more ownership over their own safety or to help provide loving support to victims of tragedy. Know that, especially for children in the third plane of development, processing these events requires some kind of action, to help prevent another tragedy or mitigate the effects of this one. While you should still offer care in what images and information your child is exposed to in the days following a tragedy, you should answer candidly and openly the questions they raise and understand that the more candor you can show in calmly acknowledging what has happened, the more control your child will feel as a result of knowing that you've trusted them to talk to them openly.
In short: Let them feel safe. Remind them that violence is never a choice. Let them feel safe. Answer their questions. Let them feel safe. Turn off your screens. Let them feel safe. Let them feel safe. Let them feel safe. We cannot protect our children from every sadness, but we can stand with them when sadnesses occur. We can assure them in their fear. We can love them in their loneliness. We can walk alongside them as they struggle to make sense of the same senseless experiences we struggle with. We can do so earnestly, in a way that matches their development and, most importantly, reminds them that they are very dearly loved, that they can trust and rely on the adults around them and that, even in our darkest days, there are almost always more helpers to be found.