Parents play an important role in helping children cope with disturbing events. Since kids are still developing their ability to self-regulate, us parents serve as a critical regulating support, not just by modeling through our own self regulation but also by scaffolding and resourcing our child’s emotional regulatory system. This is because healthy connection with another human being helps us all regulate in moments of stress, no matter how old we are. The older the child is, the broader that regulatory system becomes, because their social network expands. The truth is, however, that parents remain one of the most powerful regulation resources for their child for life (even into teenage years).
Having that in mind, here are some tips on how to help your child process difficult news that have sadly become too frequent in today’s world:
1. How young is too young? Talk to your kids from preschool age on – the degree to what you share depends on the age of your child, but it is important to talk to them because they are likely to hear about it from friends at school or hear it in the news you have been watching. They should get the facts from you.
2. Avoid allowing the TV news to permeate your home environment for a long period of time – even if you are curious about the latest find, the news outlets usually replay what you already know repeatedly, which is not helpful for anyone watching. Instead of informing you and your children, this fosters anxiety. Monitor screen time – images can be very graphic, and can lead to feeling overwhelmed.
3. The younger the child is, the harder for him or her to express with words what is going on inside – ask your preschool child to draw his or her thoughts and ask them to share what the picture means to them. This will help them organize their internal processes as well as ‘share their load’ of worries with you, which helps them down-regulate.
4. Do not dismiss it if your child talks about being worried – what they need is for their experience to be heard and understood by someone, and it is especially important that parents receive and ‘get it’. Show that you do understand their fear, and assure them of your connection with them. Not to emphasize they should be afraid, but to let them know you understand what they are feeling (most likely, you are feeling the same way).
5. Turn their attention towards hope to offset any overwhelming sense of fear – When talking about the news, it is important to point out that there were many people who were willing to do good and help, in the face of someone’s evil act.
6. Help them have a sense of control as opposed to helplessness – Events like this can bring a feeling of powerlessness. It is helpful to ask your children if they want to do something to help those who suffered so they don’t feel alone. There is always something we can do and even small acts like praying or lighting a candle, but it is also possible to reach out through writing a letter, sending a care package or even doing random acts of kindness in honor of those victims. Being able to take a positive action in the face of such tragic events helps both children and adults move on.
The most important thing is that these are key moments of connection with our children, and even though a parent may feel like there are not many words they can say, starting that dialogue with your children is of paramount importance.