How to Help Your Children When Tragedy Strikes

Originally published Saturday, 15 December 2012.

The events of the last few hours have been horrifying. We're learning more and more about the difficult details of this latest school shooting in Newtown, CT, and parents are scrambling to the internet to learn more, and talk with other parents about how to tell their children.

My own community suffered a similar tragedy in 2007 as we were rocked by the news of the Virginia Tech shootings. I know many of you are wondering how and what to share with your children about this tragedy. Based on my experience as a counselor, as a mother, and as someone who's lived through something similar to what Newtown is just beginning to absorb, here are a few tips for you to ponder.

1. Turn the television off

Young children are deeply affected by what they see. It's my opinion that this latest school shooting news (most significantly the footage of it on TV) might be too much for little ears and eyes and hearts. Please use extreme wisdom as you decide what to share with your little ones. Much depends on their age and maturity, but perhaps YOU should be the one to tell them and not the news? Filtering out horrifying images and words might be best for those too little to understand.

2. Don't tell your youngest children at all

Please feel free to disagree with me, but I don't see the need to burden children who won't otherwise know about the shootings with this information.

3. If you must tell your children, use care in what words you choose

A few years ago I got a call from a police officer friend of mine telling me not to go to a certain part of our town because there was a suspected gunman on the loose. I was in the car when he called and I made the mistake of then calling everyone else I knew to share the news with them in hopes of protecting my loved ones. I failed to realize the impact my words would have on the two little hearts strapped into their car seats in the back of my car. They were genuinely afraid for their lives, and didn't sleep well for over a week.

Think carefully about what words you will use to tell them what happened, and try your best to assure them of your love and care for them so that they still feel safe. Try to avoid words that sensationalize what happened. I'm not advocating lying to them, but it might be better to tell them some precious children are now in heaven with Jesus than to say "children were gunned down" or "children were murdered." Words have such power. Choose them wisely with your young ones.

4. If you must help children who have already heard the news, make it a matter of prayer

I don't just mean praying about how to help them, I mean praying with them. Take your children to the feet of God with you and cover them in prayer. Lead them to God as the One who can truly comfort them and help them overcome any fears they might have from the news. Tell them you don't have all the answers to why these things happen, and assure them that God is still good in the midst of it.

5. Give them age-appropriate information about safety at school

When I was in public school, we spent time each year learning about school bus safety. We got in a bus, watched a safety video, and drilled what to do in certain situations. Every time I get on a plane I have to listen to what to do in the event of a crash. Safety talks have become commonplace in our world today and I believe there's a way we can approach this subject with our kids too. Children thrive when they know what's expected of them, and since school shootings have (oh, I hate to even say it) become more commonplace I know more schools are drilling what to do if there's danger during the school day.

If your school is not doing this, ask them to. If they don't for some reason, ask for permission to take your child to the school and create a safety plan yourself. Keep it general. Don't talk about what to do in the event of a school shooting. Instead, say things like, "If there's ever an emergency, do this..." or "If you ever hear strange noises in the school and you're afraid, do this..." then drill it with them. Make your child feel confident that he or she knows what to do in an emergency and they'll feel safer when they go back.

Which brings me to this...

Many of you asked on our Facebook page how to help your children feel safe going to school Monday morning.

Oh friends, my heart breaks that we would have to help our children overcome such a thing. I'm praying for God to pour down such great amounts of wisdom on us all as we move forward, and asking Him to give us courage in the face of everything we'll encounter.

That being said, I think it's important to note that this isn't the first time our country (or the world for that matter) has endured such horribly tragedy. For as long as the world has been in existence, mankind has been putting one foot in front of the other, and surviving through the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Take heart in that. Your children are resilient. They are optimistic. If you lead them well they will recover. Here are some practical tips for making sure that happens.

1. Pray

  • for peace to rule and reign in their hearts
  • for fear to not get a foothold in their hearts
  • for strength from God to fill them with faith
  • for their protection
  • that they would only absorb as much of this news as they need to, and that the rest would fall away.
  • pray all weekend. Pray before you leave the house. Pray when you drop them off.

2. Be available to them non-stop

Make sure they know how to get a hold of you any time, anywhere for the next several weeks, especially for the next few days and when they return to school. If your child is having a really difficult time, ask for permission for them to be able to text you or call you at any point throughout the day so you can pray for them or talk them through their feelings. Send them text messages with specific verses from the Bible that will bring comfort to their hearts. Drop whatever you're doing if they need you and give them your full attention.

3. Watch for the silent types

Many of the children we think are OK because they look that way on the outside are struggling on the inside. Don't assume that your child is OK just because they don't seem to be visibly affected. Create an open, honest family atmosphere and set aside time each day to connect with them in a way that lets them know they're safe.

4. Don't make them go back right away

This is really your call parents, but Christmas break is right around the corner. If your child is really struggling with not wanting to go back to school consider not making them. Take this time to make them feel extra safe and secure in your love, get some counseling for them, and just be together as a family. The more secure they feel in you, the more secure they'll feel going back in the New Year.

5. They do need to go back

As parents, we have to work to help our children overcome their fears. The sad, horrible reality is that even parents who homeschool their children can't protect them from tragedy. A gunman could show up at my door just as easily as he could at your child's school. This perspective helps me remember that all of our days are written in God's book before even one of them comes to pass, and it helps me to not be afraid of what men can do to me or to my children. He is truly good and uses all things for His glory. Somehow, He will do it in this situation too.

6. Help them to continue to trust in God's goodness, while helping them understand the evil that rests in the heart of man

Cliff Graham (author of the Lion of War Series)  tweeted this right after the news broke and I agree:

Mankind is not basically good. I know I'll get some flack for saying that from some people, but it's the truth. Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV) says, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" Tragedies such as these happen because men's hearts are wicked and sinful, not because God somehow overlooked a certain population of people, or chooses to love and protect some more than others. HE is still good and worthy of their trust (and ours).

Other Specific Help

While it may be hard for those in the midst of such terrible loss right now to comprehend, in the words of my friend Tracey Lane (who lost her son Jarrett in the Virginia Tech shootings), "the skies will look blue again one day." There's a chapter in Hope for the Weary Mom that walks you step-by-step through how Tracey overcame the tragic loss of her son to a school shooting. As the authors, Stacey Thacker and I wanted to make it available to you for free for a limited time. Just click the link to download a free PDF of When the World Presses In.

Scriptures to Share with Your Children

Psalm 23

Lamentations 3

Psalm 34:18

Isaiah 12:2

Psalm 91

John 14:1

Isaiah 26:4

Psalm 37:3

Psalm 118:9

Proverbs 3:5

Others you would add?

Brooke McGlothlin is the author of Hope for the Weary Mom: Where God Meets You in Your Mess, and co-founder of the MOB Society, an online community FOR moms of boys, BY moms of boys.

 Photo Credit

This post was originally posted at The MOB Society, and is posted here with permission.