What To Say To Your Kids When Tragedy Strikes

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It happened again this week, a senseless act of violence that killed multiple people and injured many more. These tragedies happen far too often.

Yeah, I get it. Tragedies are an unfortunate reality. Just as sure as the world turns, we will experience another one. But the shock and pain and horror are anything but routine.

Fatherhood has only heightened my sensitivities to such tragedies. I’ve always accepted life’s uncertainties. Before becoming a dad, however, my navigation strategy (and subsequent saneness) relied heavily on naivety and an air of invincibility. When you become a parent, however, life is laid bare before you. You can’t hide behind “this won’t happen to me” while staring at your child, a picture of vulnerability.

You see the world as it is. Your first inclination is to pull your children close and spare them the hard parts. Inevitably you know you can’t, so you give them space, accepting that they will take their punches.

What you don’t expect, not even for a second, is that your child will be taken from you. No parent prepares for that. Nor should they.

That’s why recent tragedies in New York City, Newtown, Manchester and now Las Vegas steal my breath. I feel the pain of families coping with sudden, unthinkable pain and loss. I’m also reminded that no one is immune from such a moment, not me and my family nor your and yours.

That last sentence births another question, a frightening one for many parents, “How do I explain this to my kids?”

Let’s keep it real. The days of pretending the most recent tragedy didn’t happen are long gone. Thanks a ton social media.

I also don’t want to over-inform my kids. I don’t want to give them details that exceed their level of maturity. That seems problematic as well.

So, avoidance isn’t helpful. Neither is over-informing.

Does a Goldilocks zone exist here? I believe so. I’m admittedly not a psychologist or a counselor. I must also admit the nature of these conversations varies based on a number of factors.

That said, with the Spirit’s guidance, we can help our kids process tragedies and move forward from them. This isn’t a step-by-step guide. It’s more of a framework, some big ideas to consider. Let’s start with a point we just touched on.    

Don’t avoid the discussion. Your kids will hear about it anyway.s

Here’s the deal. These conversations are uncomfortable. They’re difficult. And there’s not a checklist to ensure you handle it properly. But you can’t, for those reasons, avoid them. A tragedy on the scale of Newtown, Connecticut or Manchester will catch the ears of your child, even if it doesn’t catch his eyes.

Use wisdom, of course. No need to converse over every vile news story. But the ones that captivate the world, and especially ones that affect your child’s peers (even if half-way around the world) are sure to affect them. You, as the parent, must be pro-active. Don’t wait for him to bring it up.

Find out what your children already know.

Before you start into facts and explanations, ask your kids what they already know. “What have you heard?” or “What do you think happened?” are good convo starters, and they accomplish two things.

First, you have an opportunity to separate fact from fiction. Kids talk, and every now and then, they mistake details or stretch stories beyond what is true (shocker, I know). You can alleviate some fear and anxiety by correcting misheard or misspoken information.

Second, you can gauge how much information you need to share. It’s imperative to relay only information that’s helpful. How can you make that call without asking questions?    

Decrease exposure to social media.

Depending on your kids’ age, you may want to consider limiting exposure to social media. If your children are young, they probably shouldn’t have a cell phone anyway. If you’re housing teenagers, you will need to deploy some wisdom.

In the wake of tragedy, the barrage of images and details on social media can be overwhelming. Combined this with conversations with peers, your kids can easily become overwhelmed and lose perspective.

Validate their feelings.

Feelings are made to be expressed. When they’re not, they’re suppressed. Suppressed feelings create a Brady Bunch of problems. Give your children a safe space to release their emotions. Let them know sadness and anger are normal.

Always respond with facts. Don’t make things up.

Last year, my wife’s grandfather died. I. My boys were 4 and 3 at the time. Even though they didn’t fully understand what happened, Tiffani and I answered every question honestly and directly. We used words like “died” rather than “passed away” or “sometimes people go away, but we’ll see them again.”

When your kids ask a question, answer them directly, honestly, and factually. Don’t coat your response in sugar. Only share facts. If you don’t know, say so. This is no time to pretend you’re a know-it-all. Your kids need a trustworthy, reliable source.

Seek a few reputable sources beforehand if you must. Whatever you do, don’t feed them with lies and don’t pretend to know if you don’t.

Explain the Christian response to violence and revenge.

The older your children, the more likely they are to have opinions and strong feelings surrounding tragedy. Use this conversation as an opportunity. Our faith compels us to take a different response to violence.

Don’t blame. Don’t label or stereotype races or cultures. You can name actions as evil without degrading or dehumanizing. In the Powell house, we also don’t use phrases like “good guys” and “bad guys.” We believe all people are created in God’s image. And while people do evil things, they aren’t evil people. This is no slight distinction. Good guys and bad guys are identity statements. Attacking someone’s identity is the first step to dehumanizing.

In the Powell house, we also don’t use phrases like “good guys” and “bad guys.” We believe all people are created in God’s image. And while people do evil things, they aren’t evil people. This is no slight distinction. Good guys and bad guys are identity statements. Attacking someone’s identity is the first step to dehumanizing.

Feelings of anger and even revenge are unavoidable. But our response to those feelings is a choice. We must choose to pray for our enemies, to love our neighbor, even if that neighbor has evil intent.

Reassure your children. Don’t allow fear to have a voice.

When tragedy strikes, your children want to know they’re safe. Don’t give false assurances, but let them know you’re doing everything to ensure their safety. Your body language and emotions will say as much as your words.

As Christians, we must refuse to allow “what ifs” to enslave us. We must act with courage in the face of fear.

Be courageous. Life is uncertain, but as Christians, we can’t allow “what ifs” to enslave us. Our ultimate security rests in God. There’s no place for fear. Verbalize this to your kids.

Those are a few of my thoughts. I would love to hear your thoughts. Have you had a conversation with your child following a tragedy? What did you say? Leave a comment below.

Grace and peace, friends.

Frank is lead writer and editor for the blog at Bayside church. He is also a husband, father and Jesus-follower. Occasionally he plays golf. Often he drinks coffee.

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