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A therapist's Thoughts on What to Say to the Kids

A therapist's thoughts on what to say to our kids when crisis hits. The emotional processing of pain, fear and sadness. Teaching our children emotional resiliency.

We had the most atrocious of events occur on Friday 12/14/12, a gunman invaded an elementary school right here in Newtown, CT and killed 26 people, 20 of whom were babies in cold blood.

Where do we start? How can we make sense of this? How do we manage through the deep grief, and sadness?

Not one of us can escape the thought of “what would I have done if the police told me my child was in that school, gunned down and lost to me forever?”

What would I do with those Christmas gifts? How would I get through the day, the week, the year and my life?

No words can fully comfort, but our first step is to acknowledge our grief, our sadness and our fear. We have to first take our own feelings into account, like on the airlines, first, put your oxygen mask on yourself then help others near you.

Take a deep breath, reach out to other adults and share your feelings, ask for reassurance and welcome support. We need to be hugged, reassured and loved too.

When you are in a stable emotional place, you can talk to your child. What I am about to talk about has to be age appropriate.

Too much exposure to the media, and too much talk about this subject is not healthy for little ones, say 4-10 year olds. My children are teens so they have the resiliency to listen and step back emotionally.

With little ones, clear, honest and simple with few details is ok. Such as “a bad person went to a school in CT and killed a bunch of kids and adults”. “This is a bad thing that happened but you are safe here and at your school”

Let your child express fear or trepidation and validate that feeling. “ Yes I understand, it is hard to hear this and it is scary”.

The big message is “I am here for you, I am the adult and can handle scary stuff, you are safe with me” and “you will be safe at school and we go to school to learn and have fun, and that won’t stop”

In truth, as much as I am becoming an advocate for gun control, these events are not the norm. Day to day school activities continue and are good for kids.

Ok, here is the special sauce. Once you have had some time to speak with your child about what is going on with them, ask:

"How do you feel?"

"Where do you feel this emotion?" 
Inquire about the physical felt sense in their bodies of emotions; such as “I feel fear in the pit of my stomach”. (All of our emotions are experienced in our physical bodies and it is an important life long skillset to identify and express our emotions to our loved ones).

“Lets talk about it more..”

“I am here for you and want to listen.”

“How are you feeling now?”

“Do you feel better now that you have talked with me?”

“If you feel better, where do you feel better in your body?”

“I am here for you and want you to feel safe and secure..”

I call this “closing the loop”, or “sealing the envelope” in therapy. It is about processing the experience of emotions and acknowledging the relief of sharing intense emotional experiences with a safe emotionally connected adult. This is one of the best skillsets you can possibly teach your child for life long emotional resiliency.

You want to make sure your child is feeling relieved and has had a positive experience talking about and locating their feelings or felt sense of the event.

The big message here is your job as a parent is to create safety and security for your children. You will need to conquer your fears with other adults first, but around your children your job is to be the strong, calm and capable adult.

When you can communicate with your child that all is ok, here with you, loaded with lots of hugs, snuggling and quiet time, your child will feel supported and safe again. You will all feel far less anxious and you will be teaching your children how to cope with life’s crisis. When we are emotionally resilient, our children will learn to be as well.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Glenn Wolff, LCSW December 17, 2012 at 04:28 AM
Dear Trevor, Thank you for thoughtful piece. But, what if parents that we support and counsel decide to NOT tell their children? Do parents have to? Of course not. What is also important is to know, truly know, your child and what is best for him or her. Make sure that the parent is telling the child for the right reasons; is the parent satisfying his/her own needs or that of the child? This NYT article really spoke to me: http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/15/how-not-to-talk-with-children-about-the-sandy-hook-shooting/ Thank you again. Let us pray for those sweet little babies, their families, and all their loved ones. Sincerely, Glenn Wolff, LCSW
R. Ludlowe December 17, 2012 at 05:17 PM
Is it even realistic that your kids wouldn't hear it from someone else?
Glenn Wolff, LCSW December 17, 2012 at 10:27 PM
Dear R. Ludlowe, Thank you for your comment. Of course, parents have only so much control over what their kids hear and are exposed to. But, we can establish appopriate boundaries and limits for our kids; kids need and thrive on a sense of order and structure. It is our job to make sure our kids feel safe and secure -- to the best of our abilities. Indeed, there is no right or wrong in this situation. This is brand new territory for most of us. Sincerely, Glenn Wolff, LCSW
Trevor Crow, LMFT December 18, 2012 at 02:22 AM
The best policy is to check in with your child first about what they know. Most kids are hearing it from their friends and media even when we try to shield them from this awful news. Asking your child " is there anything that you want to talk about or are worried about?" Can kick start a conversation. Being available and open to their emotional experience is the key, creating safety and security in your home and with you is deeply important for your child.
Glenn Wolff, LCSW December 18, 2012 at 03:32 AM
Trevor, I completely agree with this approach. Glenn

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