Even if you were somehow able to raise your child in a protective bubble – a very tempting concept at times – tragedy would find you. Whether it's a natural disaster such as a flood or a societal disaster such as the recent shooting in Arizona, something worrisome is going to happen sooner or later; and it will be up to you to talk to your child about it.
First of all, do talk to him. You will have to edit specifics according to the child's age and development, of course, but it's a mistake to think that your kid doesn't know that something is up. Children are very sensitive to atmosphere and they hear everything that goes on. He may not know exactly what has happened but he will feel the tension around him – and odds are good that he will overhear part of the story at school, at church, or standing in line at the library.
You want him to hear it from you.
Your child will be scared and bewildered and curious. Establish physical contact, if you can; pull him into your lap, set next to him on the couch or hold his hand. Even a “cool and detached” teenager will feel better for a squeeze on the shoulder or a quick hug. Tell him what happened as succinctly as possible, without trying to put any sort of “spin” on it. For example, you could tell a six-year-old child about the Arizona shootings thus: “Honey, you might hear about this at school today, so I wanted to tell you something I heard on the news. Somebody got very confused and angry in Arizona, and he shot some people. Grown-ups are upset and a lot of people are talking about it, so I wanted you to know what happened.”
Then there will probably be questions. Curiously, they will be the same questions you have at times like this – only difference is, there's no one who can reassure you, is there? This is one of those parenting moments when you will need to pull on your Big Kid Underpants and reassure your child even when you're still scared half to death. Don't lie, but don't let them know that you're lost, too – under 21 is too young to understand that.
“Is it going to happen here?” You may think that a shooting in Arizona – if you live in Maine – or a flood in Haiti – if you live in Canada – would not seem like an imminent threat. A child sees the world with a much greater sense of urgency, however, and a much hazier sense of geography to boot. If the disaster is a natural one, you may be able to reassure your child that, no, there are no tsunamis in Montana.
Sometimes things are local, in which case you need to tell your child what you are doing to handle the situation. “Yes, the rain is making the river rise and some of the buildings by the river are flooding. Our house is a lot higher up than those houses, but we are keeping a close eye on things, and if the flood gets close to our street – which it probably won't – we are going to go to Grandma's.”
If it's a societal disaster, it's important to stress that the immediate threat is over (if it is). “Daddy got mugged last night, but he's home safe now and the police are looking for the people who stole his wallet” or “A lot of grown-ups stopped the man who was shooting people and now he's in jail. Doctors are helping the people who got hurt.” If the threat is local and imminent, tell your child what you're doing, as calmly as you can: “Some people are fighting with guns on our street, and to be safe we need to go in the house and lock the doors. I will call the police when we get inside.”
The more difficult questions (as if these aren't bad enough) will come later, when your child has had a chance to think. Try to be honest without giving gory details, and try to answer the question they may really be asking, too.
“Why did that man shoot a little girl?” Or: Could I get shot?
“Remember when you had that infected sliver, when you were 'sick' in your finger? That man was sick in his mind. The sickness – which is not catching, and you don't have – made him think things that weren't true, and do things that regular people don't do. His sick mind thought that shooting people would fix what was wrong with him. That little girl didn't do anything wrong, and the sick man wasn't mad at her. It was just bad luck that she was there when he was shooting.”
“What happens if you and Daddy get killed like those people on the airplane?” Or: Who will take care of me if something happens to you?
“That probably won't happen but if it does, we have made plans that you will go and live with Aunt Sue and Uncle John. You have a lot of people who love you, and there will be someone to take care of you until you are all grown up.” (Note: It's so important for parents to make out a will.)
“How could someone do those mean things to people?” Or: Is safety a lie? Is there no one I can trust? Is everyone I see a potential terrorist?
“Honey, I know you know a kid who is a real bully.” Get your kid to talk for a minute about a playground bully he knows. “Well, there are adult bullies, too; there are people who think they can take whatever they want, do whatever they want and hurt whoever they want just because they want it. There are two things you need to remember: One, that there are a lot more good people than there are bullies.” Talk for a bit about some of the heroism shown during the latest tragedy; for example, the congressional intern who ran into the firefight to give first aid to the people who got hurt. “The other is that you don't want to be a bully, so it's important to be fair and kind, and to help people who are not as lucky as you are.”
“How come no one helped those people?” Or: What if we need help some time?
“Sometimes people are scared, and sometimes they don't know how to help. Why don't we think of what we'd do in that situation, so we will be ready if it ever happens near us?” Then do something together that will help, however powerless you feel. Send blankets, send money to a scholarship fund, go over to your neighbor's house and help them pick up the pieces. Do something that will help you and your child to reclaim a feeling of control over your lives.
As adults we might suspect that security is an illusion, but we need that illusion – that sense that there is still a point to doing our best and raising our families with an eye to the future – to function at all.
Don't worry about trying to explain a tragedy so that it will make sense.
It's senseless. Even a child can see that.