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Helping Children Make Sense of Tragedy

Helping Children Make Sense of Tragedy

My youngest daughter was barely a grade schooler when the planes came down on September 11.

I remember lying next to her on her bed before she went to sleep, watching her face as she tried to make sense of what she’d heard throughout the day.

“What if they come here?” she asked about the hijackers, fear clouding her face.

It seemed like a surprisingly easy question to answer. At the time, we lived in a sleepy town in Massachusetts where there were neither tall buildings nor planes. Blanket assurances didn’t feel completely truthful. But I felt confident answering the question I thought she was really asking me: are we safe?

“They won’t come here,” I told her.

My daughters are now both grown. But I’m painfully aware of how that question – am I safe? — has become so much more complicated for today’s parents to answer.

Tragedy and heartbreak seem to be everywhere right now – in schools, churches, stores, hotels, on highways. For all its horror, September 11 had some parameters that were, if not exactly explicable, at least defined.

How do you reassure a child whose whole world suddenly feels uncertain?

I asked that question of Bright Horizons’ Director of Education and Curriculum, Debbie Hoppy.

She told me, no question, the current time of world makes it tricky. Your gut as a parent is to want to protect your children; to reassure them that nothing bad could ever happen. But you don’t want to lie. And even the youngest children – who are soaking up information from older kids, public TVs and radios, and even shelter-in-place drills they may be participating in at school — can feel it when you’re not being honest.

“Three-year-olds sense our stress,” says Debbie. “You want them to trust you, so you can’t hide things. But that doesn’t mean you tell them every little detail.”

So if you don’t want to share all, but you can’t cover it up – what’s the answer?

Debbie says first you want to make sure you’re answering the question your child is asking – not the one you’re hearing. An adult who asks, “What happened?” is looking for details (the who, what, where). Young children, on the other hand, likely just want a simple read on what it means for them in the here and now. A good way to know the difference is to reflect the question back. “Ask them, ‘Tell me more’’ or “What made you think about that?’” says Debbie. “And then follow their lead.”

Children who are more direct — “Could this happen in our neighborhood?” – understand the bigger implications. For them, Debbie suggests pairing the candidness of, “It’s true, bad things can happen,” with the reassurance of, “the likelihood of that is very small and here are all the things we do to keep you safe.”

And you’ll need to adjust as your child does. The Parkland shooting came home to Debbie when her daughter started getting updates from people she knew – who were inside the school. Moments like that are when she shares (within reason) her own fears with her children, both as a way to open them up to talking, and to begin a conversation about coping strategies. “This is where I tell them what I do when I get that feeling in the pit of my stomach” she says. She also recommends service projects as a way to refocus on more positive things.

“We just can’t focus on the negative,” she says. “We have to focus on the joy in our world.”

Time has proven that people are resilient, and that routines will find a way even after a tragedy. In the days and weeks after September 11, I remember it feeling miraculous that life slowly began to settle into a new kind of normal. We went back into airports, on planes, to the top of tall buildings. More recently people went back to concerts, churches, school.

I asked my daughter what finally got her over the fear she had all those years ago about visiting her grandmother at the top of her New York City high rise.

“These things happen,” she told me. “I guess you just get used to it.”

Somehow, that may just be the most heartbreaking thing of all.

Our hearts are with the victims of all the recent acts of violence, and we stand with them as, together, we work to cope with the horrific tragedies that have occurred. Get more information about how to talk to your family by visiting all of Bright Horizons “What Happened to the World” resources, here.

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