One of the most difficult tasks a parent has to face is that of talking about tragedy with their children. This can range from the death of a pet through the death of a family member, all the way to local or national tragedies. Although there is no way to make this task easy, there are some basic guidelines which may help parents organize the discussion in a way that is helpful to their children.
Remember to consider the developmental level of your child. Children under the age of 8 or 9 may not understand abstract concepts like death. When speaking with younger children, remember to emphasize that they are safe and cared for. Be sure to include the facts in a simple way, even if that seems hard for the child to hear (i.e., "We won't see Grandma anymore"). Couch these facts in as warm and supportive a framework as you can; for instance, with reassurances that you are going to be there for them. With older children, it is appropriate to give more information.
Invite questions. Even if your children seem to understand what happened, remind them that they can ask you questions any time. Many times, children take some time to process tragic events, and will not ask about them until later. Remind them that questions are okay.
Expect regression. In the wake of loss or tragic events, many children will regress to earlier behaviors, particularly ones that are associated with comfort, such as seeking favorite toys, or wanting to sleep in the same room with their parents. These behaviors are normal coping mechanisms in the face of tragedy, and are no cause for alarm. Most children will return to more age appropriate behaviors in 1 to 2 months after the event, and often much more rapidly. However, if these behaviors continue beyond this general time frame, consult your pediatrician. Particular attention should be paid to regressive behaviors that interfere with your child's functioning, such as excessive school refusal and sleep or appetite disturbance.
Children express grief differently than adults. Don't necessarily expect children to display their grief through tears or sadness. Often, children show their grief through anger and disobedience. If you see this happening, it helps to sit down with your child and let your child know that it's okay to feel upset about the tragedy. Many times, children don't know why they're upset—they need adults to help give them the words to express their feelings.
Structure helps. One of the things that most help children through tragic loss is a continuity of family structure and tradition. If at all possible, continue to do the things your family usually does—whether these are mealtimes, special games, or involvement in religious or cultural groups. While children need to have the tragedy acknowledged, they also need to know that the world will go on.
Remember your own grief. Often, parents will try to repress their own feelings in order to stay strong for their children. While it may not be helpful to grieve extensively in front of your child, it is very important to take care of yourself, and your own feelings of loss. Children can easily sense when a parent is tense or anxious, and it is important to acknowledge your own pain and loss, and to get whatever help you need.
Finally, remember that tragedy is a part of every life—the job of parents is not to shield their children from tragedy, but to help their children become resilient enough to survive it. This is not often a job that anyone can do alone, and if you need help, ask for it, from friends, family, clergy, or helping professionals.
The following articles are courtesy of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP.org)
Bradley Hospital helps you deal with difficult parenting issues in these comprehensive reference sections:
Parents' Guide to Children's Mental Health
Have questions about common children's mental health problems? Download this one-stop resource for those answers plus information about advocacy organizations and support groups.
(This document requires Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you don't have it installed you can download it now for free.)