My view: Tips for talking to kids about tragedies

By Jonathan Sherman

Published: Monday, April 15 2013 5:55 p.m. MDT

Editor's note: This piece originally ran in December 2012 after the Newtown, Conn., shooting. Given the explosions in Boston today, we felt it could be useful to parents who were trying to talk to their children about this tragedy.

After the horrific school shootings in Newtown, Conn., I was asked the important question of how to talk to your children and grandchildren about such tragedies. There's a lot of things that can be said. What they need to hear is the truth — and that includes both sides. I discussed the following with my own:

The dark side of the matter is that dangerous people are out there, and we need to be as careful as we can. Many evil people seek to selfishly prey upon the innocent.

The light side is that most of the time, most the places you go — indeed, the vast majority of that time and those places — you are safe. We should not live in fear. The worst thing you can do to those intent on killing is to give the fame they seek and to give fear. The best option to take is to live well, live happy and seek to reach out to those in need.

As Fred "Mister" Rogers said:

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world."

And to take Mahatma Gandhi's advice:

"Whenever I despair, I remember that the way of truth and love has always won. There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail. Think of it; always."

Thus, we don't give in to fear, and we don't let fear rule us. The only fear we should use is the fear that protects us: to be cautious and careful. But not to hide, and not to retreat into easy cynicism. The truth is that most people are sane. Most people are good. And there are always more helpers than harmers.

Look around. Look around today at all the people who are helping you. Look at all the people who smile today. Look at those who pass in the car next to you, or at school, or at home, that haven't made the news. Look at the billions of people today who also haven't made the news because they have just been decent.

Sadly, those people don't often make the news.

There is suffering all over because of those who have died, families that are torn apart and communities that are grieving and fearful. Be compassionate. Reach out. Help. Pray. In the New Testament, Jesus said:

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

Perhaps there's nothing children can do about policies and laws adults and politicians will enact. But you can mourn with those who mourn. A child may not be able to visit the people in Connecticut who have lost their loved ones. But they can help where they stand. Look around in your own home and school. Seek out those who mourn, and be kind to them. Let them know they are not alone — that they matter, that they are loved.

We don't minimize the tragedy by any means. We do put it into perspective. We don't respond to evil and hatred and violence and insanity with fear and terror, because then the evil wins. A chalkboard in Newtown read, "Our hearts are broken, but our spirits are strong." We need to teach our children that to be strong is to be compassionate; to be powerful is to be wise; to be kind is an intelligent way to live.

Jonathan Sherman is a licensed marriage and family therapist.

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