Everyone is horrified by the events of the past two days and that a young child walking home could be abducted and murdered. How do we explain this to our children? How do we help them, and for that matter ourselves, make sense of this?
It is important to have an age-appropriate conversation with your children. Children may hear information which often is incomplete and even erroneous. Hearing from you, their parents, the people they trust and love, is the best source for information and reassurance.
- Prepare for your conversation with your children and have a unified message. Be in the right frame of mind and devote your full attention to this discussion. Are you ready to have this important conversation though you may not have answers to some of the questions? Begin the conversation by asking your child what he or she heard. Listen quietly until he or she finishes talking. Before you say more, summarize to your child what you heard him or her say. Keep your sentences short and simple.
- Reassure your child that the world is still a basically safe place. Project a sense of confidence in your ability to take care of your children and help them be safe.
- Explain in words your child will understand that this was a terrible act committed by a sick person.
- What are the rules of the home that you may or may not want to change, for example, if your child has permission to go to the store alone or walk to school alone? You may want to make some changes in the short term, discussing this with your son or daughter and asking them their opinions as well. They may not understand that an event that happened in another community should affect their daily routine. Give practical examples in an age-appropriate way.
- Tell your children and reassure them that it is safe to speak to you and important to share what they are thinking and feeling. Most children actually do want to speak and share information with parents, including adolescents. Every child, at every age, has questions. Even if they are not asking you questions immediately, go back and check in with them later in the day or over the next few days. Keep the dialogue going. Don’t make them anxious or scared by asking them questions too often. It is not unusual for a child to move on from a story very quickly. Young children may even go back to their routine while adults continue to talk about it.
- How can you explain to your child that even when they do everything right, a bad thing could happen? For example, asking directions or help crossing the street from a person “in the community”. We have long emphasized that “stranger danger” is a very small percentage of the people who hurt our children, that it is mainly people that we know and trust that hurt our children. It is important to talk about this story, but not to overemphasize the particulars of this case because thankfully it occurs in such a very small percentage and we want to be sure our children understand how to respond to the more natural reoccurring life events. While we are acknowledging the horrors of this story, we also want to talk about the more common challenges and dangers that our children face every day.
- An important lesson that we learn from traumatic events such as 9/11, car accidents, tsunamis, hurricanes, is we tend to create a picture of the worst part of the story, for example, the planes crashing into the World Trade Center. This is natural, but what we want to remember more is the life of the people involved. This is similar to how we are advised to pay a shiva call. We are supposed to talk about the life of the niftar much more than the details of the death. In this instance, you can also emphasize the extraordinary response by the community and show of support, which provides a positive and reassuring message.
- When you end your conversation, ask your child to summarize what you spoke about. Don’t push if your child can’t do this, but if he or she can, it is better to hear it in their words and it will give you a good picture of what they understand.
- Plan a response to “red flags”. It may be innocuous, a young child being scared and getting into your bed at night, bedwetting, or fear of the routine. These can all be normal reactions and with reassurance from you knowing that you are there and supportive, they should return to their normal behavior relatively quickly.
- Children are strong and resilient and by and large will return to their normal routines. If problems persist, contact your pediatrician or an experienced mental health professional.
OHEL professionals are available to provide support and counseling to any individual and family, as well as visit any school, day camp, overnight camp, summer community or any group that may benefit from such a discussion.