I had just walked in the door after a great dinner with an old friend when my husband delivered the news. A terrible tragedy had occurred earlier that evening, although the details were scarce. The unthinkable had occurred in what we consider our safe happy hamlet in the rural suburbs. It was reported that a local family was found dead in their home in an apparent murder/suicide, among the victims, two children who attend school with my own kids.
A mix of emotions overtook me. While in my role as a clinical psychologist and director of an inpatient psychiatric adolescent unit I am used to helping kids who have suffered trauma, this was different. This hit too close to home. My heart ached as I thought about the tragedy. As I organized my thoughts I was grateful my children were already sound asleep. It gave me time to think about what I would tell them in the morning. One thing I was sure of, that I had to tell them. The focus then became on how and what.
As I stepped back into my role as a child psychologist and parenting expert, this is what I came up with:
1.) Present the facts to them as soon as you can. Your kids are better off hearing about the tragedy from you. It is not recommended that if you know the news you refrain from telling them because you figure they will hear about it soon enough.
2.) Offer only what you believe they can manage developmentally. How and what you tell your tween should differ from the way you would approach your kindergartener. You should however be direct and honest.
3.) Focus on the outcome, not the details. Regarding the tragedy above, I let my own children know that two of their peers had died in a tragedy.
4.) Allow them to ask questions. If you don’t have the answers, gently tell them so.
5.) Don’t be surprised if they have little initial reaction to the news. This is especially common with younger children. They may not truly grasp what you are telling them right away.
6.) Be available to discuss their thoughts and questions after they come home from school. Once your children are exposed to the thoughts and feelings of their peers regarding the tragedy, they may have more questions and/or reactions.
7.) Delayed fear responses are not uncommon. Children are by nature egocentric. Because of this, your children may react with fear. This type of response often occurs after they have had time to process the news. They may worry for themselves or you. Be mindful of and sensitive to such reactions.
8.) Kids at different developmental levels will react differently. Younger children do not often grasp the finality of death. This may mean that your younger children won’t react in the way you might expect. They may have delayed reactions or none at all. Tweens and teens may be greatly affected due to their ability to think abstractly. Older kids also believe that they are invulnerable. The unexpected death of a same age peer can be devastating, things like this are not supposed to happen in their world. Your kids may also react differently depending on how well they knew their peers
9.) Help your kids grieve. Allow your kids to grieve. Honor their requests if possible. If for example they want to attend the funeral if appropriate, allow them but accompany them. Suggest other ways they can celebrate their peers’ lives. Some ideas, write a poem or an essay paying tribute; plant a tree or flowers in memory; participate in a memorial service such as a candlelight vigil or service.
10.) Consider Counseling. If your child appears to be having a difficult time managing the news, consider seeking the help of a professional especially if you are trying to deal with the tragedy yourself.