SENSE OF SAFETY: TV6 Investigates how to talk to kids about tragedy

Published: Aug. 14, 2019 at 8:11 PM CDT
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It is no longer if, but when a violent act will happen in communities across the country. When it does, the conversation had with children is critical no matter if they were directly involved or not.

"You're honest with them,” Mollie Schmelzer, a licensed mental health counselor with QC Counselors said. “You tell them what happened, you tell them how you're feeling because when trauma happens, it happens to the whole family.”

Experts say the conversations can set the stage for a child to heal, and in some cases, if done correctly could prevent more tragedy. They are conversations parents should be thinking about as more kids head back to school.

Schmelzer says that the conversation should be had before, during and after a trauma. She said it can be the death of a classmate, a bomb threat or a scene like we saw one year ago at North Scott Junior High School when a student pulled a gun out in the middle of class, pointed it at a teacher and pulled the trigger, forgetting the safety was on.

Talking to your student varies based on their age. Schmelzer said for younger children, start by listening and ask them what they have heard.

"It looks like this: talk to me,” Schmelzer said. “Tell me what you're feeling. It is not you need to do this. This is not the time to do it. When there is a trauma happening, it is about emotion. You have to be able to feel the emotion."

Schmelzer said don’t share everything and only provide the information they need. She said base that on what they ask. Also, keep your conversation simple and avoid death tolls and gun types. Shcmelzer said to also speak in their language. Remember younger children don’t understand the magnitude of the situation and are more emotional than verbal.

"We have to let the child experience it,” she said. “The worst thing that you can do is say there is nothing to cry about, it is done, it is over, don't worry. These are things that says your emotions don't matter and if we do that, we teach them to shut down and not to connect."

Schmelzer said a conversation with older kids is more direct. Keep them simple but address their concerns and give them critical information.

No matter the child’s age though, Schmelzer said do not promise a child a tragedy won’t happen to them or a loved one.

"You don't say oh don't worry, you don't have anything to worry about, because they do,” she said. "You can't promise them that it won't happen but you can promise that you will be there to do everything you can when it does happen."

If a tragedy does occur, Schmelzer recommends not ignoring it. Even though adults may not be surprised by it, we should still show kids that emotions are okay.

"If you act like you don't know about it or you're not bothered by it, your children are going to pick up on the discomfort of you lying to them and they will not learn that is okay to be scared," Schmelzer said.

Schmelzer also said you should prepare to talk to your child even if a tragedy has not happened. She said making the conversation about safety and adults doing what they can to keep children safe by getting information on your child’s school’s safety plan and discuss that.