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Talking About Tragedy

Talking About Tragedy

Dr. Stacy Ikard, PhD, LPC-S

Exactly one year ago this past week, our community suffered two terrible tragedies in a row. The sad fact is that unless your children are very young, they likely have some concept of what happened. No doubt, mothers and fathers across North Alabama spent countless hours worrying about the safety of their children after the shooting at Discovery Middle School. Then the events that unfolded a week later at UAH had us all wondering if our safe “small-town” world wasn’t crumbling in front of our eyes.

As our community remembers the anniversary of these events, it might bring up similar or even new questions from your children about guns, violence and death. I am no expert but Dr. Stacy Ikard with Cornerstone Counseling Center is so I asked her some questions which she was kind enough to answer for Rocket City Mom readers.

Often, one of the first times a child encounters death is when a beloved pet dies. How would you advise a parent to talk with their child about the loss of a pet?

The death of a pet is difficult for many children and their families because pets often become like a member of our family. I would encourage families to explore their support systems. If the family has a spiritual base, I would encourage them to talk to their children about the death of a pet from that spiritual perspective (i.e., heaven). The family needs to focus on the positive memories of the pet and the joy that the pet brought to the child. Tears are a natural part of death and loss. Therefore, the child should not be shamed for crying. Some families choose to make a memorial or bury the pet in their yard and this is often comforting for the child to have some way to find closure.

What are some signs a parent should look for in a child’s behavior that would tell them if the child is having trouble coping with a tragedy or loss?

Children express grief in a variety of ways. Some of their expressions of grief may be different from those of an adult. Many children will experience a regression in their maturity, anger outbursts or behavioral outbursts, irritability and isolation. A child may need to seek counseling if he/she starts having significant problems with school, peer relationships or family interactions.

Some teens may turn to drug usage or cutting behaviors as an unhealthy coping skill. These teens will need to seek counseling to learn healthier coping strategies and to talk about the tragedy.

Often parents are unsure of whether or not to allow a child to attend a visitation or funeral. What is an appropriate age at which a child can handle this situation?

Each child is different and this answer should be based on the child’s maturity and support system. Some children may be chronologically old enough but lack emotional maturity or a support system to handle this difficult event. I think this is a decision that each family should make based on their ability to explain the funeral process and have an adult available to monitor the child’s mood and behavior throughout the funeral or visitation.

In the wake of the tragedies in our community last year, how would you advise parents to talk with their children about what occurred? (Relative to age).

Preschool children may see the tragedies on tv or hear them through adult conversations. These children may be confused about death, violence, or someone causing harm to another. Parents are encouraged to shelter these children as much as possible from the media and adult conversations. If they do become aware of the tragedy, parents should ask the children what they heard and what they know in order to determine where the preschool children may have questions or misinformation. Parents should them clarify or explain the tragedy in age-appropriate details.

School-aged children have a larger understanding of the world than preschool children and may therefore have even more fears following a tragedy. Parents are encouraged to talk to their children about the tragedy, determine the information that the child already knows and clarify any inaccurate information. Many school-aged children will base their understanding of a tragedy on rumors or information obtained from peers. If the tragedy involves violence in a school setting, parents should talk to the children about what they should do if they hear that a peer has a weapon, who they should tell at school about the weapon, and a safety plan for how to remain safe in the school environment. If the tragedy involves suicide, the parents should also begin by talking to their children to assess what information the child knows and clarify any misinformation. Many children will feel guilt and feel that they could have stopped the suicide. It is important for parents to talk to their children about the finality of suicide and the effects on those left behind. Many parents will seek counseling for their children to address the issues of grief and guilt associated with suicide.

Teens will often isolate themselves from adults and rely on their peers to cope through tragedy in the schools. Parents should facilitate teen involvement to cope but parents need to continually evaluate their teen’s emotional state and accuracy of information. Many parents will facilitate a group meeting at their homes to organize something positive for the teens to do in honor of the deceased peer (i.e., community service project, t-shirts, etc). If your teen does not seem to be dealing with their grief appropriately, parents are encouraged to seek counseling to assist with the grief process. It is also important for parents to watch for the signs of drug usage during this time period as many teens will self-medicate to help them cope with grief.

Tragedy and grief are very complex. Many families feel that seeking counseling is best to allow a neutral and objective person to help their child deal with and learn healthy coping skills. Tragedy can come in many forms and it is important to recognize that people deal with tragedy in many ways. Counseling can provide support to families and children through the complexity of tragedy.


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