5 Tips for Talking to Toddlers About Tragedy:
She was nowhere in my mind, in 2001, when my collage roommate's mom called and told us to turn on the radio. Her father and I hadn't even met yet. But eleven years later, she held my hand and walked the Empty Sky memorial by my side. She was two.
What did this mean to her, these huge walls, full of letters etched in shining steel? Did she catch the tears that I pushed back, the way I reached out for that name, the one I knew?
I knelt beside her and held her hand. "This is a very important place," I told her. And she walked with me, and then, ahead of me, quiet, watching. I look back now at the photograph and see her tiny frame, head bowed. And while I knew it must seem huge and overwhelming to her, I figured that she would forget, lose interest.
But later, the questions came: What did it mean, why did it happen, who was to blame? How do you answer a toddler on these complicated, heavy, emotional issues?
Here are five tips to keep in mind:
1. Be Honest:
Almost every adult has a story about something Mom & Dad told them to avoid telling the truth. While these comical retellings make us laugh as grown ups, it's often because these explanations left us confused for years! "Cover stories" are lies - and lies are easily and often found out. They make for poor relationship building and they break down trust. Want your child to be able to talk with you about anything? Want them to tell the truth in everything? Then start here. This does not mean you have to give them a play by play of death and destruction - give them an age appropriate but honest answer. Think how they might think: for a one to two year old, "This place reminds people of a sad time." For a two or three year old, that might be, "Lots of people died here, before they should have." And then let them direct where you go next...
2. Let Their Questions Lead:
When my toddler asked what the memorial meant, I explained that a memorial - like a statue or a building - helps people remember. It might help people who are sad and hurt and frightened feel a little bit better. The questions that followed, "Why did it happen?" and "Who did that?" or "Whose fault was it?" were best restated before answering.
"Why did what happen?" I ask - I would otherwise easily assume she meant the deaths of so many. "Why did the building break?" She'd seen the mangled bits of steel at the memorial site. "Everything can break," I say. "Even buildings." She was satisfied with this, and so I left it. Today, she saw the photo again. She's almost 5 now. "Why did the buildings get destroyed?" she questions. "Someone flew airplanes into them," I say. "Not on accident, on purpose." She looks. "That was not ok," she says. Indeed.
3. Don't Distract:
As she looked today, I felt tempted to rush her, get back to my writing, move on. She'd be easily distracted by Duplos or dress up. But I let it be. A few minutes later she returned. "Do we know anyone who died there?" she asks. She'd been thinking about it, mulling it over. Perhaps if I had distracted her, she would not have come back with the questions. Perhaps she would have gone elsewhere for the answer. Perhaps she would not have thought more about it at all. But thinking about hard things is good. Let them be quiet, still. Don't force the conversation to end on a lesson, or an upbeat moment, or silly laughter to lighten things up. Let them think, you might be surprised at what they have to offer, ask, or add.
4. Allow Feelings:
In our house the awkward silent pause is welcomed, and we acknowledge the power it holds. This is when feelings get worked out. An infant brain knows no difference between the death of a loved one and the sudden move of his mother out of the room - a toddler, while they grasp this more and more, still does not sort tragedy into categories. Everything is the end of the world. Little brains are emotionally driven, the connections to logic not yet established. Allowing and supporting feelings helps children build their ability to process and handle emotion - in short: it helps them determine what really is worth getting worked up about.
"Seeing all these names makes me a little sad," I say. She holds my hand. Later, she says, "I feel sad too." She wants to identify with me, I know. She is learning empathy. Perhaps she is also learning the proper response to what she has seen. She is learning what it means to mourn.
5. Reaffirm and Reassure:
One of my favorite ways to reaffirm and reassure is through storytelling. The very best time for this is bedtime. Little bodies are still, minds are working away, they are finally processing all that they have pushed aside during the day. Tell a story that repeats their day, and the questions they have asked. In our house it is Frog and Bear, friends and siblings, who rehash the daily adventures, trials, fears, and joys.
If there is something you feel they want to ask but don't have the words for, or something they want to tell you but are nervous about, you might have the story characters talk about it instead. And then let your child know that you love them and that you are proud of them. Let them know that they are enough, just as they are, and that you love talking with them.
Have you talked with your toddlers about tragedy? How did it go? Is there anything you wish you'd done differently or something that went particularly well?