5 ways to help your child through tragedy

A sick sibling, loss of a loved one or pet… Here are five ways to help your children deal with tragedy or trauma.

Haley Overland 0

Photo: Matthew Brown/iStockphoto

2012 was supposed to be The Year of Awesome. But alas, so far it’s been marked by tragedy, loss and trauma for my family.

Earlier this week, we had to say goodbye to my cat of 16 years. Not a week before that, our neighbours’ 33-year-old son drowned, leaving three young kids and a grieving wife behind. And back in May, my son fell extremely ill at school, and we spent a week at Sick Kids Hospital — thankfully, he is now in good health.

With an (un)fair share of tragedy and trauma behind us, I’ve learned a lot about going through such things with my young children (ages five and seven). With the help of parenting expert Alyson Schafer, and based on my own experience, here are five ways to help your children deal with tragedy or trauma.

1. Be honest about what has happened
Lying to your children is generally not advised, and it’s taxing to pull off when you yourself are going through the tragedy or trauma too. Spend the minimal energy you have on being truthful, and trust that whatever happened is an important life experience that will help your children develop good coping skills and become strong, well-adjusted individuals. Of course, be mindful of your child’s age and level of maturity. As Schafer puts it, “Parents must be age-appropriate with how many details they give, but always honest.”

2. Be honest about your emotions
We had to put our cat Marge down immediately after dropping our kids off at their first day of school yesterday. So I experienced a horribly confusing mix of emotions. The only thing I could do was be open about how excited I was for them to start fresh at school, and how sad I was about the death of our family pet. “Mama, your eyes are dark,” my son said as we waited in line at the schoolyard. “Yes, Honey, I’ve been crying because I’ll miss Marge.”

Being open about your emotions will help your kids express and explore their own, as well. “Be sure to reinforce the idea that people have many different emotions and express them in different ways,” Schafer shares. “I was told it was ‘OK’ to be sad Grandpa was dead, but I was secretly happy because I was afraid of him, and I felt guilty for not being ‘sad’ like I was supposed to.”

3. Listen to them
Your kids are going to say appalling things in the face of tragedy or trauma — take it from me. But know that this is simply their way of processing events that are extremely difficult (on several levels) for their young minds to grasp. Continue to encourage honesty and have an open dialogue. And observe how the processing of events unfolds in their imaginary play (it’s fascinating and telling).

4. Keep them busy and in their routine
“Any expression of ‘action’ is healing,” says Schafer. “Just as an adult may want to ‘do something’ (like raise money for cancer if they have a family member suffering from the disease, for example), so children want to ‘do something’ helpful too, like writing the nurses a card or drawing a picture to cheer up a hospital room.” When my son was in the hospital, my daughter made a card for him and taped a photo of herself on it. “It’s so you’ll think of me,” she explained.

I also made sure she was busy with Grandma, going to school every day and to her programs, as always. Maintaining her routine not only helped her manage the reality that her home life was upside down (with half her family living at the hospital), but it also showed her that life goes on — another big lesson in all of this.

5. Stay positive
As Schafer puts it, “Being appreciative and showing gratitude for what is right and good in our lives does help all to gain perspective.” I like to use a metaphor to help my kids feel positive and at-ease about life, based on our family’s shared love of canoeing and spying on the graceful loons floating on the lake.

“Look at the loons,” I said to my daughter when we were canoeing over the weekend. “See how they float on the water?”

“Yeah, Mama.”

“That’s like life. Sometimes you hit a big wave, but you keep floating.”

I’m still determined to make 2012 The Year of Awesome. I’m sorry that my family has had to go through so much; indeed, we’re still recovering from the events of last May. My son has recovered physically, but admittedly, he’s still scarred on an emotional level. An open discussion with the doctor has helped me understand and patiently wait out the recovery period, and to trust that everything will be OK in time. Until then, we will keep floating and enjoy calmer waters ahead.

Do you have any other tips to help families deal with trauma? 

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