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Talking with Children About Tragedies

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It seems that tragedies, whether from natural disaster, terrorism or the simple challenges of life, confront us frequently. Terrorist attacks, floods and hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes and more are seeming to come with greater frequency. And sometimes, whether these are close to home or just on the evening news, our children feel the loss and pain of these tragedies. Our children tend to look to their fathers for stability, security and perspective. How can dads deal with these issues and help our children find both reality and healing through our intervention?

Our Children as Victims. As we have learned over and over again, we are all victims in one way or another of these disasters, whether man-made or the result of natural forces. Our children are special victims because of their need for security and comfort in their world. In many ways, it is easier for adults to conceptualize the impact of terrorism or natural disaster; children have a hard time and tend to feel more at risk than adults do. As fathers, we have to recognize that our children may feel the trauma of these events, even if they are far away, and perhaps more intensely than we do.

Keep the Communication Flowing. As the scenes of destruction are replayed on television, in the print media, and on the Internet, our children are constantly reminded of these catastrophic events. It is important to realize that one evening's discussion probably won't be enough to help them keep a healthy view of the world. Keep the lines of communication open and be willing to do a lot of listening.

  • Show respect for their feelings, whether you agree or not. Don't belittle, cut them off or say things like "That's ridiculous." Children need help in processing their feelings and coming to terms with a changing world.
  • Try gently probing and exploring their thoughts to help them verbalize. Comments such as "Tell me more about that" or "What exactly do you mean by that" are helpful. If your children are showing signs of distress but are not talking, you may need to ask.
  • Watch for the non-verbal cues. Watch your children's eyes when they are talking. Watch for tension, gestures and so on. There are many ways to get and send messages without words.
  • Accept their feelings. If they feel afraid or even a little panicky, it's okay to let them know that you do too, but that you have found ways to cope with those feelings.

Share Your Coping Skills. Adults are usually more adept and experienced at coping with uncertainty than children are. Talk about what you do to address your fears. Help them see that society has changed to address uncertainty and make their lives safer. For example, talk about tightened airport security, review what your child's school has done to improve safety and security, and help them to see that they have a role to play in their own neighborhood and community. If you are in an area that is not prone to some types of natural disasters like hurricanes or tornadoes, let them know that the risks are low. If you are in a higher risk area, remind them about how your community is prepared.

Attend Community or Religious Memorials. Many communities and churches hold services intended to offer comfort and peace after a disaster or tragedy. Consider attending one of these with your children. The messages of hope and the understanding of the passage of time will be helpful, and will likely open doors to their feelings and thoughts.

Conclusion. Keep the lines of communication open. Do a lot of listening and reassuring. And look for ways to help your children cope. With some simple preparation and advance planning, your can help make the aftermath of a serious regional or national emergency an opportunity for learning and comfort for your children.

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