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What Do We Tell the Children?

Kids want to understand. And they worry.

I began a new administrative assignment in the fall of 1998. As I set out to begin learning about my new school, its staff and the students, I was frequently asked about a school shooting incident that had occurred the previous spring. Questions like “are we safe?” and “could that happen here?” frequently were asked. These middle school students had been fretting and worrying for the entire summer about the likelihood of a tragedy that resembled the one that had happened 60 miles down the freeway occurring in their school. In the absence of information and reasoned reassurance, they were scared.

Similar questions of safety and a need to understand greeted me when I got to school on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Like the rest of the nation, the children were shocked by what they had seen on television that morning as they were getting ready for school. The unthinkable had happened. These 11-14 year olds had watched airplanes deliberately fly into the World Trade Center in New York City. “Why?” “Will the same thing happen in our town?” All reasonable questions from kids.

And, this past week the soul of the nation was rocked by what appears to be an attempted coup by a riotous mob that breached the sanctity of the nation’s capitol building and sought to harm members of congress, and the Vice President of the United States, as they were engaged in the ceremonial verification of the Electoral College votes that solidify the designation of the next President. As the circumstances become more clear, kids will have questions and may harbor feelings that call into question their sense of safety.

Children of all ages possess keen radar that easily picks up on situations that their parents, and other adults in their lives, are concerned about or struggling with. All they may see is the unsettled state of these adults because they predictably do not have the insights or life experiences to personally react to these observations in a way that will diminish anxiety and promote resilience.

What do we tell the children?

Before we attempt tell them anything, we need to listen to them. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), as posted on their website, listening is a critical first step in supporting children in coming to grips with tragic events while promoting a sense of safety and well being. Adults need to ask children what they understand about an event, how it makes them feel and what questions they may have to help them fill in their personal gaps of understanding. The AAP also stresses that it’s important that adults do not force kids to talk or express their feelings on a specific time table. Rather, adults should simply remain open to hear what children may have to say when they are ready.

What kids need the space to do, both during and on the back side of a crisis, is to construct their own sense of security. This frequently requires information. Through the process of listening, we may uncover misconceptions or missing pieces that might prove critical to their construction of this security blanket. The questions of younger children will predictably be different from those of adolescents. We need to make sure that our input is age appropriate; satisfying the inquiry while avoiding any fuel for increased anxiety.

Fundamental to answering the question of this article is this. Whatever it is we tell the children, it must be the truth. They deserve nothing less. Please note that I did not say they need our version or our interpretation of the truth. Personal judgements are not helpful and may actually cause harm. Kids need facts, provided in terms they can comprehend, as they struggle to make sense of the circumstance and construct their personal safety net. The truth may even include that we don’t yet have an answer to their question. Again, according to the AAP, “keep in mind that it is the situation that is upsetting them, not our talking about it. Don't feel obligated to give a reason for what happened. It's OK to say you don't know why something so terrible has happened.”

A balance between supporting children in coming to grips with their feelings or concerns while engaging in normal routines is very healing. There is inherent safety in what is familiar.

It is not enough to merely survive a tragic event or occurrence. We must support children in thriving as a result. As I think particularly about the events in Washington DC last week and the potential impact they may have on children, I am drawn to some themes, some ‘take aways” that may lend themselves to the development of resilience in kids. (Always a teacher seeking the “teachable moment.”) Consider these overarching concepts that are worthy of consideration and, perhaps, inclusion in instruction.

Words matter. Rhetoric leads to action or reaction.

The language that we use holds tremendous power and frequently influences the direction of a reaction, or whether any action will occur at all. There is a direct correlation between the intent and tone of the language used and the action taken. If the discourse is respectful and considerate, the outcome will likely be similar. Folks much smarter than I are suggesting that the insurrection that occurred on Capitol Hill this past week is the result of consistent messaging over an extended period of time, where the rhetoric used became the perceived “truth” among the rioters. This is true of any messaging: on the playground, in conference rooms and from the podiums of influence by global leaders. This is not a new phenomenon. This has been true throughout our history.

Violence is a poor substitute for dialogue

This is closely aligned to the rhetoric topic above. How would the events of last week have played out if the language used was less inflammatory and the resolution was explored through respectful discourse? What has the concept of “might is right” accomplished over our history?

A house divided

Time and time again our history has been confronted with this metaphor of division. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Abraham Lincoln used this in his 1858 speech to the Illinois Republican Convention as he sought to ease radical division in the country over the intensely volatile topic of slavery. Division continues to be a dominant theme in our current political and cultural climate. Is division necessary? Is it harmful? How can it be bridged?

(I would love to be a fly on the wall during classroom Socratic seminars on these topics.)

What we say to kids in the aftermath of tragedy must accomplish four things. 1) Restore and protect their sense of safety and security. 2) Support their progression from survivor to thriver while building their resilience. 3) Promote the development of critical thinking and analytical problem solving. 4) Aid in the realization of a secure platform for their voice - rooted in civility, respect, empathy and compassion.

It’s what kids need. It’s what they deserve.


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