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7/3/16blog post

talking to kids about tragic events

Mother Hugging Daughter Tenderly Bad stuff happens. However, some events, such as the horrific death of a two-year-old at Walt Disney World, result in our hospital being contacted by the media regarding how to talk with kids about traumatic events.

I say the same thing in every interview. Listen to your child’s concerns. Reassure them that they are safe. Limit media viewing by younger children. Involve your kids in some volunteer action so that they feel that they can make a difference. Be mindful of possible stressful reactions your children may experience.

While I hope this advice is helpful, I am deceitful in these interviews. I avoid the issue of talking with kids about the two uncomfortable truths known by all parents about life’s tragedies.

Truth # 1: Safety is an illusion. While we want kids to feel safe at home, school, or at an amusement park, we know they are not. Violence in homes is the most significant threat to kids, but children seem most concerned about shootings at school. These events are not statistically common, estimated at perhaps two per month in grades K-12.

Safety risks vary by age, with suffocation being the highest risk for children under one, drowning the leading cause of injury to kids ages one to four, and motor vehicle accidents being the leading cause of death for children over five.

We can take actions to minimize these risks, but we know that they cannot be completely avoided. We need to protect children from the reality that their lives, and ours, may end at any time. They will learn soon enough that our reassurances about safety are more expressions of hope than statements of fact.

Truth #2: Life makes no sense. I can’t figure out why bad (and good) things happen in life. I’d like to think that there is a relationship between what we do, and what happens to us. Work hard. Be an ethical person. Be kind and helpful to others. Wouldn’t it be great if behaving well always resulted in good things happening to you?

We know that is not always true. Kids die in car accidents, get shot at school, or get killed by an animal in an amusement park. I have no way of understanding why those things occur.

During my twelve years of Catholic education, I was taught that God had a plan for all of us. I wonder why that plan involves the gruesome death of a toddler vacationing with his parents at Walt Disney World.

Tragedies will continue, as will the subsequent interviews. I’ll continue to conceal the truth, as will most parents. Our kids will learn about reality soon enough.