Helping Explain the Unexplainable
By: Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart
It’s unfortunate we even have to have this conversation. It’s unfair that we have to read a blog or an article to find the words to talk to our little ones about tragic events. It’s sad to think we continue to see more loss, especially when it hits so close to home. It’s a shame that when you read this you might not even know what tragedy I’m referring to, because it occurs so often.
The recent mass school shooting in Uvalde, Texas happened an hour and a half from my home. It was shocking, scary, and so extremely sad. While I received hundreds of messages from colleagues, professionals, teachers, and parents as a pediatric psychologist and parent coach about how to speak about the events with their kids and students the next day, as a mom I was also trying to figure out how to speak to my own 9 and 12 year old kids about it as well.
Before you speak to your kids, it will be important for you to process things for yourself. That was important to me. I couldn’t provide resources for others or speak to my kids until I processed my thoughts and feelings about what happened.
Here’s my tip for you:
Don’t force yourself to move past the sadness, grief, or anger. Allow yourself to feel what you feel. Sit with those feelings. Notice how your body feels. Then, breathe slowly. Allow your exhale to be longer than your inhale. Give yourself permission to feel and then allow the emotions to shift.
Now you’re ready to process the events with your kids. It’s okay if you still feel a ton of feelings. We don’t have to do this perfectly.
I want you to feel equipped and empowered to have these conversations with your kids. There is no one way to do this and these guidelines are just that…guidelines. These scripts are suggestions. Modify them as you see fit based on your child’s age, personality, and maturity level.
1. Ask your child what they know and they’ve heard.
Many parents would prefer to shield their kids from talking about hard stuff and tragic events. However, many kids have surprised their parents and said they already knew. They already heard about it online, from their friends, or overheard their parents talking. You might say: “Something really terrible happened in Texas this week. What have you heard?”
2. Ask them if they have any questions.
They may not have any questions or they might feel uncomfortable asking. They might not want to know. The information might feel overwhelming, scary, or just too sad for them to handle. So, before you go on, just ask first. You might say: “I know it’s a lot to process and think about. Do you have anything you’d like to ask me?”
3. Share information in response to what they ask.
For some parents, it might feel tempting to go into a lot of detail because you’re still processing all the events yourself. For others, you might withhold information for fear of scaring them. The best rule is to respond to what they ask. If they ask what happened in Texas, you might say: “A young man went to a school and hurt a lot of people.”
4. Resist the urge to over-share.
Again, if you tend to process things out loud and verbally, you might feel tempted to share a lot of information, because your brain is trying to understand what happened and why. You might be thinking about how those families feel. You might be feeling scared about sending your kids back to school. All of that information is simply too overwhelming for your child. You might say: “That’s a really great question. This is what I know about that.”
5. Provide comfort and reassurance.
Most kids don’t want to know all the details, unless they are very curious and highly observant. Even then, if that’s their personality, they might tend to internalize and hold onto the big details. So, resist over-sharing. Instead, provide comfort and reassurance. You might say: “I am really sad this happened. In our family, we do our best to keep you safe and make sure you’re as safe as possible even when you’re not with us. What do you need to feel safe?”
There are many more things to consider. However, this is a starting point.
If you are looking for additional support, my team and I at A New Day Pediatric Psychology offer virtual parent coaching and support. Reach out at www.anewdaysa.com.
For additional resources or ways to support the Uvalde families and community: https://www.npr.org/2022/05/25/1101161673/how-to-help-uvalde-school-shooting