Talking to our Children About Tragedies

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Here’s a question I have thought of way many times: How do we talk to our kids about tragedies? Do we simply ignore the event or make light of it? The unspeakable Las Vegas shooting and the tragic storms in Texas once again bring this issue front and center. 


I was a second year teacher when the Challenger disaster occurred. My Superintendent way back in 1986 made the decision to keep students at school that day; there was some discussion of sending kids home so they could be with their families. Of course, my whole 8th grade class was watching the event live so I had no choice but to improvise and discuss the tragedy without any preparation. 


Fast forward 15 years – I was in my second year as a Principal in Hopkinton, NH when the attack of 9-11 occurred and while we weren’t about to send kids home, we made the decision not to inform the students at our school about the event. Older students were asked to not talk about the horror of that day on the bus ride home so that parents of primary kids could have a family discussion in the emotional safety of the home. 


Now we are facing endless days when the Las Vegas shootings top the news – surely our children are thinking about what happened and perhaps putting themselves in that concert crowd that fateful evening. The tragic weather events in Texas and Florida are also upsetting as students know that we do face difficult weather conditions living in New England. As parents, what should we do? 


First, we need to limit the amount of news our children digest daily. With more than 90% of adults owning and carrying a smartphone with video capability, non-vetted images of traumatic events are available to all. This morning on cable news, citizen video and police body-cam images showed live, horrific scenes during the Vegas attack. There’s no need for our younger children to see that, especially HMS-aged kids. 


Second, we should ask our children how they are feeling about these events, especially if they start asking questions. Parents have to acknowledge that awful things do happen but that they are safe and you will protect them. 


Third, give your children something positive that they can do to help. Thanks to the efforts of third grade teacher Karen Vittoria and her class at my school, we are partnering with a 3rd grade classroom in Orangefield, Texas and teacher Jennifer LeBlanc to help them get back on their feet with “Project Hurricane Healing”. Her classroom was devastated by Hurricane Harvey, the class lost everything, and parts of the school building are being rebuilt. Of course, many of the children and teachers have lost their homes as well. 


Jennifer is asking for gift cards (e.g. Walmart, Target, Office Depot, Amazon) to replenish her classroom library and classroom supplies. Hopkinton parents: If you are interested in helping out by purchasing a gift card or sending in smaller amounts of cash that can be converted to gift cards, please place the cash or cards in a envelope labeled “Project Hurricane Healing” and send in with your child. If you are outside the school district, please email me and I will send you information on how to contribute. The event will continue for two weeks, so please have everything in by October 20. Karen and her class will collect the gifts and make sure that Texas teacher Jennifer LeBlanc receives everything swiftly. 


If you would like additional ideas on how to respond to grief and trauma with your child, Edutopia has some strong resources at this link (which is on the website as well):

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