How Can We Discuss Unfathomable Tragedies with Children?

Lately, it feels like we parents have to explain an awful lot of really brutal stuff to our children and help them understand what’s happening without traumatizing them. But how on earth do we talk to kids about tragedies that we can’t even begin to understand ourselves??? Let’s discuss.

How on earth do we talk to kids about tragedies and brutal events that we can’t even begin to wrap our minds around ourselves??? Let’s discuss.

How Do We Talk to Kids About Tragedies We Don’t Understand Ourselves?

Two weeks ago, an 18-year-old walked into a supermarket and killed 10 people. The next day, a man opened fire on a church in California, killing one senior citizen and injuring five more. A week later, another 18-year-old walked into an elementary school and killed 21 people. That’s just May, and the month isn’t even over yet.

I don’t know how to explain these things to my kids. I don’t even know where to start this post, let alone that conversation with my kids. I’ve written and deleted paragraph after paragraph because none of it felt right.  I’m just at such a loss for words right now. “Devastated” doesn’t even begin to cover it. I’m just so freaking lost.

“Just because you don't understand it doesn't mean it isn't so.”
“Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t so.”

I feel completely unprepared for these conversations, and I’m not alone

I’ve read every single “how to talk to your kids about tragedies” article I started with this one from the Academy of Pediatrics. Read this one from the Mayo Clinic, and even this one from Highlights magazine. That last one really threw me.  It’s just jarring to see the magazine that taught me manners, responsibility, and how to be more like Gallant than Goofus now telling parents how to talk about brutally tragic events.

The one that helped me the most, though, came from The Pediatrician Mom’s blog. She flat-out admitted that she was “a little lost about how to approach a conversation with my children.” If nothing else, it made me feel like I’m not alone in feeling completely and utterly helpless here. I think we all need to hear that right now. We’re all just wandering around in the dark, totally unprepared for these discussions.

I was talking to a friend about this the other day. A lot of friends, actually, but one conversation, in particular, stands out. She said that when she sat down to talk to her child about this latest school shooting (and the fact that I’m saying the words “latest school shooting” is devastating in its own right), her child actually ended up consoling her.

“She gave me a matter-of-fact rundown of what he’d do in the event of an active shooter in his school. Where she’d hide. When she’d run instead of hiding. How to make herself a smaller target if she did have to run. She went on and on about everything they’re taught in their drills. She’s in 3rd grade. Just 8 years old, and she already knows more about dealing with these tragedies than I do.”

“Everyone has a thousand wishes before a tragedy, but just one afterward.”

Our kids face more tragedies in a year than we did in our entire childhood

The world that our kids are growing up in is not the world we grew up in. I know that we say that a lot, usually in a joking “back in our day” way, but it’s true. Don’t get me wrong, we coped with plenty of tragedies throughout our early years. Pretty much all of us can tell you what we were doing when the Challenger exploded, for example.

But the big stuff- the really devastating mass-casualty stuff- happened MAYBE once a year if that. Each tragedy hit us hard because it was just so foreign and unusual to us. To this day – 36 years later now-we still take a few moments every January 28th to memorialize the lives lost in the Challenger. Most of our childhood tragedies, though, involved people far away and much older than us. Never once in my entire childhood did I think “I hope that I survive school today” and mean it literally.

Meanwhile, our children are growing up in a world where it’s unusual to go a single week without yet another tragic event taking place, and most of them involve kids their own age doing things that they do every single day.   It’s sad that at this point they probably understand more about the horrors of the world than we do because they’ve grown up hearing about them every other day. Worse, so many have grown up living through these events.

The truly awe-inspiring thing, though, is that somehow, despite that- or maybe because of it- they haven’t grown hard or desensitized the way we have. In fact, our kids’ generation is MORE passionate about changing the world. MORE passionate about preventing tragedies. MORE passionate about pushing the adults in their lives to DO something to put an end to the never-ending cycle of tragic headlines.

Maybe we need to stop spending so much time trying to figure out how to talk to our kids about tragedies that we don’t understand ourselves. Instead, maybe we need to listen to our kids when they tell us that they already know how to cope with tragedies because they’ve been doing it all of their lives. Maybe, just maybe, we need to listen to them when they tell us what they need us to do to make their world safer.

We’ll never be able to understand why these things happen. Violence by its nature is illogical and irrational. You can’t apply logic to the illogical. We need to stop asking “why, why, why does this keep happening?” Instead, we need to ask, “What can we do to stop it from happening again?”

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