When tragedy strikes, in addition to dealing with their own feelings, parents have to think about the impact on their children. Just as our children are growing and changing, our own understanding and coping skills develop and change.
Each family has an emotional system, and if you grew up in a family with a generally healthy emotional system, you are very lucky. Many people struggle with a not-so-healthy emotional legacy. Fortunately, there are lots of resources that can help us learn and grow throughout our lives. It's important to build resilience in ourselves and our children; it helps us face inevitable disappointments, sadness, and tragedies.
When dealing with a tragedy, an important first step is to take care of ourselves. The constant news coverage can be addictive, and it can contribute to our anxiety. We appreciate the perspective of Kirk Martin of Celebrate Calm:
"Do not feel like you have to watch endless coverage in order to feel like you "care" about the victims. Just because I am choosing not to listen to/watch endless coverage DOES NOT mean that I do not "care" about the victims."
When it comes to helping our children, many experts recommend this first step: ask what the child has heard, don't assume anything. Here are some resources for talking with children:
Mr. Rogers – on Tragic Events in the News (This is also available in Spanish.)
From Zero to Three – Cope After Exposure to a Traumatic Event. Note especially the handout “Little Listeners in an Uncertain World: Coping strategies for you and your young child after traumatic events”
From Hand-in-Hand Parenting - “Helping Children Exposed to Shocking Events” by Patty Wipfler
Sometimes talking is not the only way, or the best way to help ourselves or our children. Some people find solace in prayer or meditation. Music--listening to it, or better yet, playing music or singing--is a proven way to reduce stress and build connection with your children. Laura Jones writes about just such a moment with her six-year-old (some time ago, back in the days of cassette tapes). They were driving home from an errand:
"As I reached to switch on the car radio, Rachel requested a song from one of my favorite music cassette tapes. I was surprised; I hadn't realized she had paid any attention to my music. By the time I fumbled with the tape and rewound it to the right track, we were almost home. Rachel sighed in disappointment--but I knew how to handle the situation. I sailed on past our house and just kept driving. The song began, and she knew all the words. She and I sang along with Paul McCartney at the top of our lungs as we rolled through the night, happy with the song and with each other."
If you have a baby, or if you know a baby you could sing to, you might enjoy the songbook and CD "Sing to your Baby" (or iPad app) by Grammy-award winning musicians Cathy Fink and March Marxer. It includes lots of sing-play songs - there are samples to listen to on the Sing to Your Baby website.
Play, especially roughhousing play, can be a great way to connect with children of all ages. See The Art of Roughhousing book or blog for ideas.
The natural world offers one of my favorite healing powers--from a garden patch to a national park. Spending time outdoors with friends adds another resilience-building factor: community.
I'm a grandmother now, and I'm still working to build my emotional competence and resilience. I'm grateful for the many wonderful resources and for the millions of nurturing people, especially parents, who help to build a healthy world, one moment at a time.