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Helping Children Process a Tragedy

Mother holding a hand of her doughter  in spring day outdoors

Shock, disbelief, pain. The world just changed. It really did.

Time slows down, thoughts speed up, and we instantly start trying to understand, trying to process. “How…?”, “why….?”, “how come…?” are only a few of the questions that cycle in our minds, as we try to somehow make sense of things.

This is how it is for us adults, and also how it is for our children. Caught off guard to handle what has happened, we often feel doubly unprepared to help our children process a tragedy, and they are the very people who might need it most.
Here’s what I know, and a few best practices to keep in mind as you help your children process a tragedy.
Create space and time to talk. Talking after a traumatic event is well known to be an important mitigator of trauma symptoms. Talking is one way that we process and absorb emotional experience – organize it, if you will, for later. How we understand an experience will determine how we store it in our memory, and importantly how it will impact us in the future. This is even more so for our children whose brains are still developing and laying down templates for life.
Talking helps us process and cope. It is the basis of debriefing. You need it, and so does your child. So be prepared to let your child talk, talk and talk some more – as much as s/he needs to.
Introduce the topic, and listen.  Don’t be afraid to bring up what happened, even share the news, and ask how they’re doing with it. Listen carefully to what they say, and aim to put yourself in their shoes. Imagine how they are feeling, what they are thinking, and how their experience makes sense to them. This is active listening – a powerful tool to access your child’s experience.
Communicate empathy. Before you do anything else – answer any question, comment on the situation, or say anything at all – let them know what you heard, and what you understand of their experience. Then pause, and see if you got it. A good sign that they feel understood, is when it prompts them to say more about their experience. If you didn’t quite get it, they will usually clarify. Repeat this process until you get it right. You should notice them express themselves and this is where you might have a variety of powerful emotions coming at you. Don’t panic, don’t tell them not to feel that way, just listen, and validate their experience.
This is empathy, and it is powerful. If you do nothing else, do empathy.
Making space to see a situation through our child’s eyes helps them feel heard, loved, and safe. They feel safe to process their experience, safe to feel their feelings, safe to try to make sense of what has happened. It sends the powerful message that their experience is important, and that they can handle it. Empathy may not feel like enough, but it is.
Follow their lead. Not only is empathy a powerful tool to help them process their experience, but it also gives us useful information that can help guide the rest of your conversation. Notice the questions, concerns, and feelings that emerge whether discussing the loss directly or indirectly through a topic or play that is metaphorically similar. As you tune into your child’s experience, you will be better able to determine what s/he needs moment to moment. Understanding that processing will take time, and can vary across conversations, and even times of the day.

Answer questions, and go slow:  Once your child knows you understand their experience, don’t be afraid to answer their questions. Tell the truth, but keep your answers short, and pause. The pause gives your child a chance to absorb the information in a bite size chunk. It also allows you to see what they do with the information, and where to go next. When in doubt, continue to convey empathy.

When you get stumped: It’s okay if you don’t have answers, and it’s okay to say you don’t know. You don’t have to have the answers to move ahead, and this too sends another powerful message to your child. They don’t have to either. Focus on what you do know, and model that it’s okay not to know everything. Life is full of mysteries, and unanswered questions. If you have a spiritual practice, this could be a good place to practice this together. Tragedies can be processed in spite of unanswered questions. It’s how we view them, rather than the answers themselves, that delivers meaning.
Build a narrative of healing: As you talk, and respond to your child’s experience, allow your child to say whatever comes to mind, understanding repetition is normal. However, also keep in mind that you are ultimately helping your child, and yourself, to build a healing narrative. Talking about a painful loss through the lens of a story – from start to finish – can helps us process loss more in a healthier way and avoid getting stuck in negative rumination. So as you talk, look to put the pieces together and build a story of what happened, what is happening now, and what might happen in the future. Building a story together helps your child make sense of their experience. This is part of processing.
Expect this to take time: The more emotional a situation is, the more there is to process. Likewise, the more complicated a situation is, the more challenging it is to understand and process. Tragedies are perhaps the hardest experience to make sense of for all of us, and especially for our children. Tragedies can mean more time to talk or process is needed, not less.
Nonverbal options If your child isn’t a big talker, make space to do an activity together so you can share space and time with them. Walking together, or driving can be less intense ways to bring up a sensitive topic. Look to use the same strategies as you can, and convey empathy as soon as you have an opening. Writing is also an effective way to express ourselves and has been shown to have a powerfully positive effect on emotional processing.
Most of all, hug your children, show them they are safe, and that they are loved. Your best is good enough, and you will get through this, together.
Additional resources:
National Association of School Psychologists
Children’s National Health System
Further Online reading:
Signs your child might need professional help:

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD

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