Many of us were caught unaware yesterday when graphic details of Chloe & Aubrey Berry’s murders were shared with the public. I think many of us were expecting to be upset by this trial, but the depth of the violence reported by the media was overwhelming. If you have read the news accounts of the trial and are feeling unusually weepy, angry, irritable, or perhaps even numb, please know that these feelings are completely normal given the circumstances and that you are not alone. Even seasoned therapists in my office are affected, and they have heard it all.
In some ways, trauma is like a virus. A traumatic experience comes into our psyche and wreaks havoc. What makes the trauma actually “traumatic” is that it challenges our innate assumptions about life and the world. Over many years, we create our “schema”, our way of looking at and understanding the world. Our schema is influenced by all our past experiences; therefore, a traumatic experience runs counter the grain of our psyche. It is contrary to everything we believed to be true, which can be challenging to come to terms with and comprehend. So, the collective trauma that we have experienced as a community goes beyond simple feelings of sympathy and condolence; instead, it deeply wounds people’s souls. Traumatic experiences can challenge our faith in the goodness of people and diminish the childish belief that things always work out in the end.
When our hope dwindles after horrific events such as these, this is when it is most important to come together and find support and love with one another; especially with our family. Ideally, your child(ren) will not have been exposed to these upsetting details, but if they have been, please make sure to let them know they are supported and they can come to you at any time. Here are some ways to speak to them about it:
- You are their best resource for the facts. Encourage your child to understand that you are their number one source of information. If they have questions about things they hear about or see in the news, they should come to you first with those questions. It’s easy for people to hear and spread incorrect information, so you are their best resource for the facts.
- Reassure your child that they are safe and secure. Explain that you will keep them safe. Scary things do happen in the world, but these things feel shocking in part because they are extremely rare.
- Answer questions in a ‘just enough’ way. Your child will likely have questions about what they’ve just heard, though sometimes children will not ask any questions right away or may even seem disinterested. These are all normal reactions and part of the way different children process challenging topics; the child may come back days or even weeks later with questions. Provide your child with straightforward and truthful answers to their questions. I suggest providing just enough information; answer the exact question being asked without going into further detail. Avoid passing along any kind of conjecture. And it’s always okay to tell them you do not know the answer to something.
- It’s ok to show your emotions. Parents often wonder if they should try to hide difficult emotions when discussing death with kids. In most cases, I say there is nothing wrong with being sad in front of your child. You should honour your own emotional experience, as that gives permission to the child to honour theirs. So, if you are tearful while talking to your child, that is okay. If you are completely inconsolable, that means you first need help for yourself, in order to be able to support your child. Go ahead and ask for that help, and save the conversation for a time when you are ready to do so without causing your child distress.
- Explain that there are good and bad people in the world, and that is why we must all understand the difference between right and wrong. It is hard to understand why and people do what they do. However, let your child know that the world has many, many more good people in it than bad people
- Times of tragedy allow us to be strong, brave and help us come together. Point out to children all the things people are doing to help — from first responders, to emergency room workers, to ordinary members of the public who are assisting in some way. These helpers inspire compassion and faith in the world.
Remember, we want our children to grow up to be empowered and compassionate problem-solvers, rather than fearful citizens who expect the worst to happen. Helping them learn to process tragedy can be an integral step in their journey to becoming resilient people who can find positive ways to respond to the bad things that happen in our world. – Dr. Jillian Roberts
We have made our “Coping with Terror & Tragedy” online course free for all those seeking additional information on how to help children understand what has happened.