This year has certainly gotten off to a difficult start.
We’ve witnessed unprecedented hurricanes in Houston, the Caribbean, and Puerto Rico; a massacre in Las Vegas; and just last week, horrific fires in California, leaving a climbing death toll and agonizing destruction in its wake. I hear echoes of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, “Who shall perish by water and who by fire?” that we sang wistfully only a few short weeks ago, as we beseeched God to write us in the Book of Life.
The question demands to be asked: if we’re having difficulty grappling with the enormity of these disasters that are occurring rapidly, one after another, how then can we help our children comprehend and feel safe in a world that seems to be imploding around us?
Often, our first instinct is to avoid talking to children about difficult subjects, thinking that they are unaware or too young to understand them. We want to believe that by avoiding the topic we can shield our children from painful facts and the fears they may cause. Yet oftentimes children are already aware of upsetting events in the world, through social media or from overhearing comments made by siblings and older school friends.
Though it is very disturbing, it also is an opportunity to teach our children lessons about human kindness, the outpouring of help from neighbors and first responders, their acts of unity, selflessness, and caring for others.
When they are faced with danger and uncertainty, children don’t want to feel helpless. Therefore, it’s important to try to give them information and context at a level that they can understand. Talking to your children about their worries and concerns is the first step to helping them feel safe and learning to cope with the events occurring in the news. What you talk about, and how you say it, does depend on their age, but all children need to be able to know that you are there listening to them and their concerns, even when they are sometimes afraid to admit it.
Kids feel more in control if they can understand what is going on around them. By explaining the facts of what happened (dispelling rumors and misinformation), and how adults prepare and respond to emergencies, children are better able to comprehend the situation and learn from it.
Here are some tips and guidelines for talking to children in the aftermath of a tragedy or natural disaster:
- Start by asking children “What did you hear?” Share the known facts. Don’t speculate about why it happened and don’t give more specific detail than necessary. Ask your child “What questions do you have?” and “How do you feel?” Explain that all questions and feelings are OK when a tragedy like this occurs, and that it’s normal to feel upset.
- Remind children that the world is a good place even if there sometimes are bad people who do bad things. Share information about how the people of Las Vegas mobilized to help bring the victims to the hospital; offering their cars and pickup trucks to take the injured to get help immediately, rather than waiting for an ambulance. Being able to see how even in the worst situations people try to help each other offers children hope and stability in the face of turmoil. Remind children that there are helpers (police, FBI, firefighters, medical personnel, etc.) who are trained to deal with people who do bad things, and to help out in a time of crisis.
- Emphasize that this event (hurricane, fire, shooting) is a rare though troubling event. Respond to your children’s concerns by validating their feelings of fear or anxiety, express empathy for those impacted, and emphasize the unlikelihood of it occurring here.
- Find a way for your child to respond. We all feel better when we can do something to help others. By contributing something positive — for example, sending a condolence card, offering prayers, giving tzedaka (charity), and doing additional acts of kindness in the merit of the victims — we will add light in a time of darkness.
- Minimize access to news coverage, and keep adult conversation on this topic out of kids’ earshot.
- All adults are role models. Most importantly, children will take their cues from how we appear to be handling this crisis.
- Reassure your child that you are safe and together.
In troubled times we often turn to our rabbis for guidance. On the topic of evil and violence, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “We must answer hatred with love, violence with peace, resentment with generosity of spirit, and conflict with reconciliation.” When he looks at the extreme volatility in the climate, Rabbi Sacks teaches us that “Man is not only the master but also the guardian of nature.”
The holiday of Sukkot, which recently ended, deepens our appreciation for the cycle of nature and underscores our helplessness against the power of its forces. Let us strengthen our resolve to protect our planet, for the sake of our children and our children’s children, who one day will inherit this earth from us. And let us become role models for our children in treating all of humankind with generosity of spirit and in responding to acts of hatred with love and compassion.
Dr. Tani Foger, Ed.D, of Englewood is an educational consultant and psychologist.