Moms Talk: How to Discuss Tragic Events with Young Children

How do we talk to our kids about devastating earthquakes, tsunamis and shooting rampages?

Senseless tragedies give rise to tough questions from kids. Can this happen to me? Why does God let bad things happen? And so on.

Our instinct is to reassure and try to rebuild a feeling of security. Can we do this without being misleading? 

There have been plenty of opportunities to discuss tragedies involving nature like the earthquake in Haiti, the earthquake and Tsunami in Japan and severe flooding here in the United States. In those cases, it is easier to talk about the emotion-stripped science of the natural phenomena than the devastating impacts on real people. If we can explain something, if there's a reason for it, then it's tempting to focus on that.

It is far harder to tackle tragedies caused by fellow humans. They are avoidable, caused by people who are careless or do not value human life. The recent shooting rampage in Norway cannot really be explained without touching on mental illness and extremism, complex concepts for a toddler.

We are lucky when tragedies are far from home because we can say they are rare and far away. But when devastating things happen in our own neighborhoods or homes, the cupboard is bare of comforting things to say. A recent example is the death of a 9-year old girl in a traffic accident on I-90, where a large truck rear-ended the girl's car.

When an event hits particularly close to home, it might be helpful to focus on a "cause," that helps or celebrates those hurt by the event. In 9-year old Rachel's case, the community has found solace in donating to her cause, "charity: water." For her recent 9th birthday, Rachel asked friends to donate money for clean water instead of buy her gifts. According to Mynorthwest.com, Rachel did not meet her $300 birthday goal, and her donation website was closed. After her death, the website was re-opened, and according to the "charity: water" website, over $700,000.00 has been raised in Rachel's name for clean water in countries like Africa. The website asserts that for $20, clean drinking water can be provided for one person for 20 years.

Another example of channeling emotions and the desire to help after a tragic event is "Operation Airlift Japan," a brainchild of radio talk show hosts "Ron and Don" on 97.3 Kiro. Ron and Don originally solicited help for 436 orphans when they heard that after the earthquake in Japan, an orphanage had insufficient supplies and was turning kids away. Listeners, also dubbed "The Ron and Don Nation," overwhelmingly responded with over $1.4 million in supplies (43.5 tons). The supplies helped not only the initial orphanage, but the overflow has helped many others in need. 

I suspect experts would approach tragedies like they do early questions about sex--make it simple and short, because such responses are usually sufficient. It seems like cheating, but with the youngest of kids, my inclination is to try to reassure, create security, or divert attention to a "cause."

I am hoping for comments from mental health professionals and others who have special knowledge and experience in this area for your input on this tough topic.


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