What Should We Tell Our Kids When Bad Things Happen?

Paris. Colorado Springs. San Bernadino.  

During this time of year that should be filled with holiday cheer and celebration, these are the words that glare at us in the news, on television and in our social media feeds.  Tragedy after tragedy after tragedy...

While it is hard enough as an adult to comprehend how these horrifying killings have become so common place, how can we possibly explain these events to a child - let alone one with special needs?  Specifically, children with autism pose very difficult challenges. It is hard to know how much information a nonverbal child is absorbing from television and conversations.

#1: Talk to your child at his or her developmental age, not chronological age. If your child has developmental delays, that will impact his or her understanding of traumatic events and emotional reaction to them, too. While you may want to explain more, provide just the information that's being asked for. Keep things simple and as straightforward as possible - details may only make things more confusing and anxiety-producing. 

The National Association of School Psychologists, recommends the use of "social stories" to help a child with autism comprehend behavior they observe but don't understand. The explanation of what is happening can be reduced to a social story. A storybook can then be kept by the child to help reinforce the information on a concrete, basic level. For further information on the use of social stories, click here.

#2: Maintain your routine. Kids with special needs cling to routine, and a disruption of that - whether because your family is actually disrupted by the tragedy, or because family life is revolving around media coverage of it - may be more traumatic than the event itself. Keep life as normal as possible for your child.

#3: Keep your emotional equilibrium. Dealing with tragedy and terror is hard on parents, too. We are only human, afterall!  Remain calm and in control. If your child sees you upset, or angry and unsettled, he or she is likely to notice. Limit the time you spend talking, thinking, and worrying about the events, and give that extra attention to your child.

#4: Expect some acting out. Often, when children with special needs explode in intense periods of misbehavior, it's hard to tell what's causing all that acting up. In the case of a disaster, terrorist attack or other traumatic event, however, you don't have to guess. Give your child a little extra understanding and latitude during these times, step up supports , reduce expectations , and choose your battles with additional care.

#5: Offer concrete solutions to abstract problems. There may not be anything you can do about disasters or tragedies outside your own local area, but there are things you can do to make your family safer. Kids who are upset by current events may find comfort in doing something very concrete and immediate -  put together a family survival kit or discuss escape routes and practice evacuations. In addition to making your child feel safer and more in control, these strategies offer one small way to take something good from a very bad thing.

As a parent and a grandparent, I sometimes wish I could take my loved ones and live in a bubble -protecting everyone from the violence, hatred and tragedies our world experiences.  But with our children being exposed to these images more and more through around-the-clock media coverage, it's virtually impossible to shield our little ones from the images that they see and the news that they hear.  However - as hard as it may be at times - as adults, it is our job to put these tragedies into perspective for our children and to help them better understand the world around them.