When your children are young, it's possible to shield them from stories of national tragedies like that recently witnessed in Paris, France. While this was not our national tragedy, we've had our own recently. Several of the biggest American tragedies in recent memory are the mass killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the 9-11 attacks, and Hurricane Katrina.
When these kinds of large-scale tragedies occur, the news media and general buzz will likely intrude into the view of your elementary aged children. How should you handle this buzz that comes into your life, whether you want it to or not?
Here are six keys to handling national tragedies well with your children.
1. Be accessible. Be there to listen to their questions, and even better, be there to listen to their comments.
2. Ask open-ended questions. "What do you think about the bombings in Paris?" will allow children to share what they know, and you can listen to their answers. This is important bridge-building.
3. Help your child process the event within your larger framework of belief. Senseless acts of violence don't make sense (how's that for circular reasoning), but we all do our best to understand why. Confront the concept of evil in the human heart, because ignoring it only makes it bigger in our children's minds. Not every evildoer was once a victim, but many were.
4. Always focus on the acts of heroism in the face of great evil rather than on the evil act. By doing so, you point out the good that can come from tragedy. You are watering the soil of hope rather than the soil of bitterness.
5. Be open with your own emotions. Let yourself mourn. If you are angry, show your child how to handle anger. In doing so, you will model for your child how to let anger motivate you but not determine the action to take in response. For example, explaining how you felt anger, but then determined a rational plan of action can help your child see how anger can result in thoughtful planning. One way to act is to make a donation to a relief fund, and let your child take part in that act of giving.
6. Don't rant. Going off on a diatribe of anger and frustration about the ills of the government or other entity you feel to be behind the tragedy doesn't help your child. I did this to some extent, but as I look back, I feel I only showed my children a sullen, angry version of myself. I would have been better off to vent elsewhere, then gain control and share the specific facts or opinions my children needed to hear, including a focus on the heroism of survivors.
In such times, our children need parents to provide a steady, rational interpretation of life, including both tragedy and optimism.