“I don’t ever want to go back to Disney World” This was my 8 year old’s statement to me as we prepared for bed last night. WHAT?!? That was random. Why on earth would he not want to go back and where did this come from? And then it hit me… It wasn’t long ago that we went to Disney World – the most magical place on earth which happens to be in Orlando. Orlando, which used to represent the happiest place on earth, now is seen by my son as a battlefield.
As a Child Life Specialist, I’ve spent years working with children in the midst of crisis. I’ve worked with kids facing the death of a sibling, a life altering injury and even facing their own death. It’s never easy having these conversations with children. These are the conversations that always start or end in “why?” “Why did he die?” “Why do I have cancer?” “Why did that man kill all those people? The hardest part is not having the answer to “why?”
So as our nation once again begins to rally after a horrific tragedy, here are a few things that I have found to be effective when helping children cope with tragedy…
- Assess what they know: Often kids know more than we think they do. Ask questions like, “There has been a lot of news about a big shooting in Orlando. What all have you heard?”
- Clear up misconceptions and fill in the gaps: Once you know what the child knows – or believes to be true – you can clear up misconceptions. For example, “You are right, Disney World is in Orlando however, the shooting didn’t happen in the park.”
- Be honest: Honesty is very important. You want children to trust that you will be honest with them, even if it’s a difficult situation.
- Remember your child’s age and developmental level: Use appropriate language and know that sometimes it’s best to keep the information simple. This can be hard balance – you want to be honest but not give too much information. For instance, it isn’t necessary to go into details about terrorism or discrimination with a 6-year-old. However you can say something along the lines of “Someone made a very bad decision and hurt a lot of people. Yes, a lot people even died. The man responsible even died.”
- Reassure them: Kids are very egocentric, meaning that they are often self-centered (which is completely normal) and wonder how things affect them. This is why my son doesn’t want to go back to Disney World because if he thinks if he does, he will be shot. Reassure your children that while it feels like we hear about these horrible events all of the time, the reality is that it is unusual. Reassure your children that safety measures are taken and there are a lot of people working to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. Kids need to feel safe. While we want to be honest with our kids, we also want them to know that there is still more good in the world than bad.
- Allow them to express their thoughts and emotions: Be there. Listen carefully. Most kids won’t just sit around and spill their innermost thoughts and fears. However, kids tend to open up when they feel safe and not so vulnerable. Incorporate play or activity while talking. Try passing a ball, painting or playing play-doh as you talk. Don’t be afraid to express your feelings too. It’s okay to let them know that you are sad or mad. It’s okay for them to see you cry. Just remember to stay calm because kids feed off of their parents.
- Take action: Spread love. Give your children an outlet to show love and to help others. Ask your child about things they may want to do to help those who were effected by the tragedy. Can they decorate a card? Can they donate their allowance or donate a toy/clothes to help those in need? Can they say a prayer for the families? By giving your kids something important to do to help will allow your child to feel more in control while also giving them a positive coping strategy. Remind your kids that we want the “good stuff” in the world to outweigh the “bad stuff” so it’s our responsibility to spread the “good stuff.”
So after much conversation, I am happy to tell you that my son has once again decided that it’s okay for us to go back to Disney World. Matter of fact, he said that “we could even leave tomorrow. ” Never underestimate the power of a conversation. Never underestimate the power of the “good stuff.”