Parenting Through Dark Days: Ideas to Help When Tragedy Arises

:::::::Yesterday, I found myself reflecting on what we offered our children in the days following September 11.  Parenting during troubled times is not for the faint of heart.  Today, let’s take a few minutes to think about what our little ones may need when a hard season arises. This is list is not meant to be exhaustive but instead, to offer a beginning as you think through what might be helpful to the children you love. :::::::

I wish I had never seen the look on a child’s face when they find out someone they love has passed away. I wish I had never had to field questions about our military entering battle in distant lands. I wish I had not seen my two little ones, ready for preschool, silhouetted against the images of September 11 on our television screen. But all of these experiences are real to me and have taught me a bit about what children need when times are unsure.

It may be easy for us to say that this is not that time. Perhaps you feel safe where you are and making a plan for how to share information with your kids seems like details you do not need to tackle right now. You may be right. And yet, the day before all of the events above seemed much like today. Regular. Uneventful. Until that was no longer true… So, let’s take some time today to think about this while our minds are clear.

When I was teaching first grade, a beloved teacher found out she had cancer.  All my students prayed fervently for her healing.  They made her gifts and begged God for a specific outcome.  And yet, within a year, she tragically lost that battle and passed away.  In a move that would never happen today, her death was announced in school over the intercom. As a teacher, I found myself in a room of 6-year-olds who were mourning, confused, angry.  To be honest, I felt much of this myself.  Nothing I learned in my college career prepared me for that afternoon.  But I learned two things:

  1.  Be honest with kids when the news is sad.  Do not use grown-up jargon to soften the blow because that jargon is not something they understand.  If we say that a person has passed away, we understand this but young children do not.  It is okay to say that a person died and it will help them to fully grasp this difficult news.
  2. When you do not understand why something would happen, it is okay to admit this.  Kids are growing in their understanding of the world.  They are beginning to develop their own faith.  Faith is real and gritty and sometimes unsure.  God is not threatened by our questions and can meet us where we are.  So allow for those questions, even the unanswerable. Let them talk it out, if they choose. In addition to this, it is also helpful to ease children (and ourselves) into an understanding that sometimes when we pray for something, we get a “No.”  The prayer is not unanswered.  It is an answer we hoped we would not hear.  And that is sad. Make room for that emotion, and the wide variety of others that follow the loss of a loved one.

When I was teaching, I also found myself trying to explain the Gulf War.  While many parents believed their children were unaffected by what was happening overseas, I found that the kids picked up far more than their parents knew.  War is scary for everyone and when we hear about our military involved in battle, there are two things we must do to help our children understand:

  1.  Remind yourself that children are smart and resilient.  We may feel like we want to shield them from realities, such as war. But what we need to do is educate them at an age-appropriate level.  When we are willing to talk about this with our children, it becomes less scary.  Taboo subjects feel overwhelming to little ones.  How terrifying must a thing be if even grown-ups will not discuss it?  We do not need to explain every gory detail but we do need to help them grow into an understanding of the world that will soon be theirs.
  2. Tell them where the battle is occurring.  I was stunned to be asked, several times, when the tanks and shooting would come to our area in Indiana.  Because so many adults were unwilling to help children understand the war we found ourselves in, the kids filled in the missing information themselves.  They had no idea it was so far away!  Upon realizing this, I took out a globe and helped them to see where we were and where the war was being fought.  The relief was palpable.  Our kids need us to help them understand their world and their safety.

Lastly, on September 11 my husband and I found ourselves in the midst of a national crisis while parenting two very little boys.  While I wish they had not seen the images of those planes hitting the World Trade Center, it was almost impossible to shield them from such.  Today, they are grown.  21 and almost 20, they still remember that morning and the long, confusing days that followed.  We learned two things during that time that made a difference to our little ones.

  1. Choose words carefully but honestly.  It was scary and sad and shocking and we used those words.  It was a horrible tragedy and many people died.  We said exactly that.  We let them be scared and while we saved our moments of extreme distress for minutes away from them, we allowed them to know that we were feeling sad and scared, too.
  2. That said, we knew we had to be a safe place for our boys.  We needed to hold them and rock them and reassure them that it is our job to keep them safe and we will do just that.  We let them find comfort in their favorite routines and took them outside on walks,  and we rough-housed inside to release anxiety and stress.  We let them linger in the tub and snuggle a little longer and read one more book and keep a lovie nearby.  We showed them in our actions that even when the world is unsure, we will seek to provide for them a safe place to land.  And truth be told, it helped us, too.  Knowing we were loving each other well, and doing so intentionally at a time of such grief, was a balm to all of us.

Difficult times will arise in the lives of our kids.  They will face things that we wish they would not and it is our job as their parents to be prepared to offer them the stability, love, and honesty to help them through those days.  We do not need to be perfect, especially when we share their grief.  But if we think through these things now, perhaps we will be more aware and prepared when those dreaded events occur.

I am a teacher, a Momma, a speaker, a writer, a wife. I am not a psychologist or social worker.  There are so many things that we can offer children and these 6 suggestions are what I have found helpful in helping kids that I love.  That said, you are the expert on your child.  You are the one who knows that little one best.  I challenge you today to think about what will be needed when the unexpected occurs.  What will matter to your child?  Parenting can be a very difficult job but there will be no more important person in your child’s life than you.  Be that person.  Even when the words or the story break your heart.  Be the one that wraps your arms around your son or daughter and draws them close to help them feel safe.  Speak words of comfort and affirmation.  They will carry that moment into their future in ways that can help them to overcome losses and tragedies, big and small.

How very powerful, you are.

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