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How to talk to your children about tragedy

 By Huma Siddiqui MD,  FAAP

1. Start the conversation

Studies show children as young as 4 years old are often aware of major crises events regardless of their parents talking to them about it. Often it is from small bits of information gleaned from the media, overheard conversations or from other children at school. It is best for a child to hear about these major events from a parent or trusted caregiver who can help them process their emotions.  Open the conversation by asking what they may have heard about the event and what questions they have. Explain the event in a simple age appropriate manner and address any misconceptions or fears they may have.  Remind them that it is ok to feel upset, focus on how people are helping and make sure they understand that they are safe.

If your children haven't heard about the event or don't want to talk about it, don't force the conversation. Leave the door open.  Make it clear that they can talk to you about anything and you will always be there to help them. Follow  through on this and give your full attention if ever they do want to talk. Keep in mind older children may feel safer attributing their feelings to those of a friend. If this happens play along. Acknowledge that the friend's feelings are understandable and ask her what she/he thinks might be a good way to support this friend.  Be a good role model and talk about how you are feeling and what helps you cope.


2- Avoid graphic details and media exposure

Avoid unnecessary details, graphic images and sounds that may occur on television, radio and social media sites. The repetitive nature of modern day media cycles have the effect of re-traumatizing the watcher and prolonging the associated stress. Teenagers who wish to see the news may benefit from watching a recorded news story that has been pre-screened and deemed appropriate by a parent. This can then be paused to accomodate questions and conversation.


3. Talk about the dangers of generalizing

While it is natural to engage in thoughts of blame or revenge, this will not help ease feelings of grief or provide solutions for the future. Let your children know that it is normal to feel angry at the people responsible and that terrorists do not represent everyone from a particular race or ethnic group. Talk about how our community is made up of many different races and backgrounds and that it is our differences that make us stronger. Reiterate we must not judge people based on how they look or where they come from. Remind them this is a time to join together with good people of all backgrounds to support peace. 


4. Talk about the prophetic tradition of being a helper

Discuss the trials and tribulations of our beloved Prophet Mohammad ﷺ (PBUH) and how he dealt with persecution and difficulty. Brainstorm with your child ways that they can be helpers like the Ansar. Talk about the importance of being an includer and spreading kindness to the people around them. Encourage them to talk to you when they or their classmates are upset or worried. Over time, they can think about how they, along with other members of their community, might be able to do something helpful for the victims and survivors. 


Common Questions

I don't know what to say. What if I make things worse? Wouldn't it be better to say nothing?

Don't worry about saying the perfect thing- there is no answer that will make everything ok. It's alright to say you don't know. What children need most is someone to hear their concerns, accept their feelings, and be there for them. Answer their questions honestly, keep your responses simple and appropriate to their developmental level. Provide reassurance. Being silent or avoiding the issue won't protect them from what happened and may prevent them from understanding and learning how to cope with their feelings. Shutting down communication may leave your child with the impression that they can't or shouldn't come to you about the difficult things.


What if it upsets them?

Keep in mind its not the discussion that's upsetting. Its the event. The emotions are there whether you talk about them or not. Leaving them un-expressed means your child will be dealing with them on his/her own. Talking about it gives your child the opportunity to express those bigger complex emotions and learn how to cope with them in a healthy way. Let them know its ok to show that they are upset and that we don't have to be afraid of the bigger feelings. Provide comfort and feel free to pause the conversation or re-visit it at another time.


What if my child isn't coping well?

Children who are not coping well may experience 

Sleep disturbances-Trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, nightmares, sleeping much longer than usual

Physical complaints- Fatigue, headaches, changes in appetite, muscle pain

Behavior changes- acting much younger than their age, increased aggression or irritability, fear of being alone

Emotional changes- Anxiety, depression, increased tearfulness or lack of interest in their usual activities


If your concerned your child may need extra support, contact their pediatrician or a mental health professional.

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