In the wake of the recent shootings of at least 32 students on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, mental health experts at Bradley Hospital (www.bradleyhospital.org), the nation’s first psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents, recognize that one of the most difficult tasks a parent has to face is that of talking about tragedy with their children.
This can range from the death of a pet through the death of a family member, all the way to local or national tragedies they see or read about in the news.
“Kids gain mastery through repetition - they may ask repeatedly about the incident to gain understanding--parents and caregivers need to be prepared to answer the same questions over and over and using simple, honest, and age appropriate answers,” says Kelly Chasse, PhD, with the Bradley School in East Providence, RI.
She also suggests that parents stay away from using euphemisms when talking about death.
“Statements such as “resting in peace;” “passed on to another life;" “we lost her;” “she is no longer with us” are not helpful to children and are confusing.
Using the words death or died, although difficult for adults, will be more helpful to kids,” says Chasse.
1. Remember to consider the developmental level of your child: Teenagers understand the concept of death. It is important to provide honest and factual information when talking with teenagers about death. Couch these facts in as warm and supportive a framework as you can; for instance, with reassurances that you are going to be there for them. With teenagers, it is appropriate to give more information than you would a younger child.
2. Invite questions: Even if your teenager seem to understand what happened, remind them that they can ask you questions any time. Many times, teenagers take some time to process tragic events, and will not ask about them until later. Remind them that questions are okay.
3. Expect regression: In the wake of loss or tragic events, many teenagers will regress to earlier behaviors, particularly ones that are associated with comfort, such as seeking favorite toys, or wanting to sleep in the same room with their parents. These behaviors are normal coping mechanisms in the face of tragedy, and are no cause for alarm. Most teens will return to more age appropriate behaviors in 1 - 2 months after the event, and often much more rapidly. However, if these behaviors continue beyond this general time frame, consult your pediatrician. Particular attention should be paid to regressive behaviors that interfere with your teen’s functioning, such as excessive school refusal and sleep or appetite disturbance.
4. Teenagers express grief differently than adults: Teenagers are on their way to becoming adults, but it is important to remember that they are not yet adults. As teens try to make sense out of what has happened and they experience their grief, you may see anger, disobedience, and acting out behaviors. If you see this happening, it helps to sit down with your teenager and talk with them. Give them permission to experience their feelings and encourage them to express their feelings. Let them know that the intensity of feelings they are experiencing will not last forever.
5. Structure helps: One of the things that most help teenagers through tragic loss is a continuity of family structure and tradition. If at all possible, continue to do the things your family usually does - whether these are mealtimes, special games, or involvement in religious or cultural groups. While teens need to have the tragedy acknowledged, they also need to know that the world will go on.
6. Remember your own grief: Often, parents will try to repress their own feelings in order to stay strong for their teenagers. While it may not be helpful to grieve extensively in front of your child, it is very important to take care of yourself, and your own feelings of loss. Teenagers can easily sense when a parent is tense or anxious, and it is important to acknowledge your own pain and loss, and to get whatever help you need.
Finally, remember that tragedy is a part of every life - the job of parents is not to shield their teenagers from tragedy, but to help their teens become resilient enough to survive it. This is not often a job that anyone can do alone, and if you need help, ask for it, from friends, family, clergy, or helping professionals.
Chasse says that parents and caregivers should not be afraid of not having all of the answers.
“It’s okay to say “I don't know:” You are helping your children by letting them talk about their feelings and listening to them.”
Founded in 1931, Bradley Hospital (www.bradleyhospital.org) was the nation’s first psychiatric hospital operating exclusively for children. Today, it remains a premier medical institution devoted to the research and treatment of childhood psychiatric illnesses.