For parents and all others concerned about how to deal with traumatic events with children, we pass along this letter written by Unitarian Universalist religious educator Patty Wipfler. She writes:

Dear Parents,

We all are struggling to deal thoughtfully with the Tennessee shooting on Sunday, and the cascade of feelings it has triggered in each of us. There is, at heart, no way to understand such acts: people hurting people simply doesn’t make sense. But we as Moms and Dads are called upon to handle these sad and unwelcome events in ways that hurt our children as little as possible.

Here are my thoughts about caring well for our children and ourselves during these days.

o First, we need to set aside time to talk with each other, work through some of our feelings and reactions, at times and places separate from our children. We adults carry a much heavier load of feelings about such things, because we have been made to feel helpless and hopeless about both current events and historical events over and over again. The deep feelings we carry are important to release in crying, trembling, and an open show of upset, but with other adults. This helps us recover our ability to pay attention to the power we do have and the things that can be done right where we are. We won’t communicate well with our children without these times to express and unload our deep feelings.

o It is important for our children to see that we care about people, about justice in the world, and about bringing an end to people harming people. If you are upset, go ahead and cry openly, but without detailed explanation of your feelings. “I’m sad about something I heard on the news” is fine, along with “and I just need to cry for a little while to get the sadness out.”

o It is not helpful for young children to know all the details of what has happened. They can’t digest this kind of harm, and can become terrified by exposure to the graphic images and the feelings of horror and drama that we attach to the details. To keep young children from becoming unnecessarily terrified, we can

o Shield them from the media. TV reports, newspaper photographs, and radio commentary in a disaster all communicate that adults do not feel safe, in charge, or trustful of others. These are best kept away from our children.

o Keep concentrating on our present lives, the tasks and routines of everyday, and the goodness of being together and enjoying one another.

o When explanation is needed, explain the events in general terms, and in terms that your child can understand. For example, you could say that lots of adults feel upset, that some people died suddenly, when no one was expecting trouble, and that when that happens, grownups can get sad and angry. You can explain that you have feelings, too, and that you will be talking to other grownups to take care of your upsets about it.

Children who are exposed to the images on TV or to tense, distressed adult talk will need explicit reassurance. They will need to know specifically that they are safe, that all is well, and that you will be doing what you know how to do to help people work together so this doesn’t have to
Happen again.

If you are asked why this happened, depending on the age of the child, it’s OK to acknowledge that we grownups haven’t yet figured out how to have everything fair for everybody in the world. You can explain that when they don’t feel that things are fair for them, they may get mad and cry
about it, and that you listen to their feelings, and then you work out solutions. But for many people, there’s no one to listen or to help them enough with their concerns. So sometimes people get mad and do things they never really wanted to do. They try to get attention, and they do it in hurtful ways.

When talking about injustice and human irrationality, it’s also important to explain what you do in your family to help each other when one of you needs attention. For instance, you resolve fights by listening carefully; you make sure people don’t speak hurtfully about anyone else; you ask someone to listen to your own feelings of upset whenever you can; and you reach out to people you know have had trouble, so that they don’t lose hope or connection with others.

In the end, though, irrational acts don’t make sense to children, because they don’t make sense, period. So don’t try too hard to get the explanation”right,” thinking that they “need to understand” the hurt in the world. Children need an explanation of why the adults around them are reacting,that all in their world is still OK, and that we are taking care of them.

If your child has become frightened by the tones, words, or images he has seen, he will find ways to bring up his fears that may be indirect. For example, he may wake up crying in the night, may get upset over not gettingto sit on your lap during dinnertime, or may have a tantrum over not being able to find the shoes he wanted to wear today. Our children need us to LISTEN at these times, to stay close and reassure them while they feel thefeelings in a big way. “You can sit on my lap after dinner, I promise,” said with a relaxed tone, will let your child cry and fight out the feelings of fear and tension until your reassurance sinks in. “We’ll find your other shoe, but right now, I don’t know where it is,” will work just fine to give him an outlet for the fears and worries. Don’t mention the crisis that you think may be attached to all these feelings. Children’s emotional release process can be stopped cold by our interpretations. It works better to keep referring to the small issue at hand, which your child chose because it was just the size he could handle.

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