Essential reading: first as preparation for life's inevitable losses and second, as a resource on your bookshelf for times of crisis. Giving Hope: Conversations with Children About Illness, Death and Loss by Elena Lister, MD and Michael Schwartzman, PhD, with Lindsey Tate. Read our review of the book here.
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When tragedy strikes, in addition to dealing with their own feelings, parents have to think about the impact on their children. Our own understanding and coping skills develop and change; there's no one 'right' way to have difficult conversations, to comfort our children.
An important first step is to remember to take care of ourselves. The constant news coverage can be addictive, and it can contribute to our anxiety. I 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 more resources for talking with children:
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—can reduce stress and build connection with your children. Try turning the volume up on some symphonic music while you sweep the floor or do some other routine chores. Recordings can be found on YouTube. Some suggestions:
Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 6 in B Minor
Verdi - Requiem
And more music suggestions from Alexander Stein, a psychiatrist who lived near the World Trade Center and who wrote for the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association in 2004: Music, Mourning and Consolation:
Mozart - Requiem
Beethoven - Missa Solumnis
Bach - B Minor Mass
Brahms – Deutches Requiem
Barber – Adagio for Strings
Pachabel – Canon in D
Another way that can help calm and comfort children is asking them to help others. Ask if they would help a friend or neighbor who is worried or sad "would you paint a picture for them of something that makes you feel calm?" (Or you might think of other ways to help such as cooking a meal or helping with yard work.)
Joining in play with your child can be a powerful way to connect: building with blocks or Legos, rolling / pounding / pushing clay or Play-doh, playing chase or roughhousing. See our resource page on play, and for ideas about strengthening parent-child attachment through play, see developmental psychologist Dr. Aletha Solter's book Attachment Play.
The natural world offers healing powers--from a garden patch to a national park. Spending time outdoors with friends adds another resilience-building factor: community.
Throughout our lives we can continue to work on building our emotional competence and resilience.