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Global events in the Middle East and around the world break our hearts. And the scary thing is, our children are watching too.  Some of these tragedies invade the lives of young children – little ones that looked a lot like our little ones.  And because there were children involved, our kids are asking a lot of questions.  It can challenging to navigate tragedy with children.

As parents, one of our primary roles is to be constantly teaching.  When it comes to “Life 101,” class is always in session.  This doesn’t change in the midst of tragedy, as awkward as the role may be.  Most kids are asking the same innocent question that we all ask – “Why?” – and our ability to respond correctly can help turn a terrible situation into an opportunity to talk about some tough-but-necessary topics.

As a father of three and a pastor and author who has dedicated much of the past two decades to helping moms, dads, grandparents, and mentors, I am still left wanting for the right words to say in such an awful situation.  Still, I’ve learned a few things along the way, and hopefully these ideas will help you navigate this difficult road with your children:

1. Remind children that they can trust God – even in tough times.

Consider saying, “Sometimes things happen that we can’t completely understand.  We know that bad things happen in this world because there are bad people.  But it doesn’t mean God doesn’t care about those little children.  In fact, that’s why Jesus came – so He could rescue us from evil and be with Him some day in a perfect place!”

2. Don’t act like you have all the answers.

Kids won’t believe you anyway if you start making stuff up.  It’s okay to say, “You know what?  That’s a good question, but a hard one.  I’ve wondered that too.”  But follow it up by sharing something that you DO know.  You don’t have to pretend to be certain about everything if you can demonstrate that they can be certain about many things: your love for them, God’s love for them, the fact that you will do everything you can to protect them, that their schools are safe – and will be even safer – after this, etc.

3. Listen and don’t ignore questions or inquiries.

Pay attention to even the most passing comments.  If your child knows anything about what happened, you can count on the fact that he’s thinking about it, and you want to be ready to talk when he is.  Check out these 5 questions to ask you kids when navigating tragedy.

4. Keep life normal and routine.

Young children always fare better when life is as stable as possible.

5. Limit media exposure.

Sharply limit media exposure in young children, and be there to explain what is seen. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that “overexposure to the media can be traumatizing.  It’s unwise to let children or adolescents view footage of traumatic events over and over.  Children and adolescents should not watch these events alone.”   Kids may have a hard time discerning that only one gunman went into only one school, for example, when they see reports for hours on end on different channels as they’re looking over your shoulder.

6. Point out the good things that can happen.

Place emphasis on the heroes of the events – emergency personnel, teachers, and other students. Perhaps write a letter of encouragement to people who worked to help from the area police departments.

Seek out stories about the people who work to help the families in the days ahead, and the ways that your local schools have announced that they will work at improving security. (Almost every school district made some sort of statement about the tragedy.  You can find most of them online.)

Help kids find ways to help – let them come up with creative ways!

7. Be alert for signs of anxiety.

Finally, look for any signs that might indicate high levels of anxiety in your child. Remember: what we see as replay footage or something horrific that happened in another town, our children may interpret as something that keeps happening very close to home.  The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology points to the following symptoms of  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in kids:

  • Refusal to return to school and “clinging” behavior
  • Persistent fears related to the catastrophe
  • Sleep disturbances such as nightmares, screaming during sleep and bed-wetting.
  • Abnormal behavior problems.
  • Withdrawal from family and friends.

If you start to see any of these behaviors in the following week, it might be worth a call to your doctor, pastor, or school counselor to inquire about some additional help.

Promises of something better.

It is almost overwhelming to take in the magnitude of some of the events taking place in the world.  It’s even more challenging when children hear that it involved children just like them.  It makes me angry that such conversations have to take place.  As a Christian, I’m grateful for the promises of something better – because Christ has overcome the evil in the world and will one day eradicate evil, sin, sickness, war, and death from this earth.  In the meantime, God has put moms, dads, grandparents, and mentors like you in their path to remind them everything will be okay.

Dr. Ryan Rush
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