Professor Jodi Quas offers advice
When asked about how to talk with children about collective or personal tragedy, especially the types of violent incidents that seem to appear in the news almost daily, Professor Jodi Quas usually focuses on talking with young children, many of whom do not yet have a full understanding of the true meaning of trauma or any accompanying death or suffering.
“The most important thing is to engage in the conversation, even with young children. We cannot fully shelter them from knowing about tragedies. If we don’t answer their questions, they will come up with their own or seek information elsewhere,” says the professor of psychological science. “Listen first and then answer their questions.” Parents can explain that unexpected events sometimes happen and reassure children that they are OK. Through these conversations, parents can also begin to teach their children about compassion, empathy, and supporting others in times of need.
Yet, more recently, Quas has been asked the same question about older children, including those in college. “Children’s needs do not stop when childhood ends,” she says. “Adolescents and emerging adults continue to rely on parents for guidance, and parents play a crucial role in helping older children just like younger children cope with traumatic and unanticipated events.”
Quas offers her advice to the following questions.
How should parents react when tragedy happens on their child’s college campus?
There is no correct way to cope with a personal or collective tragedy. Everyone reacts differently. As parents, we need to keep this in mind when talking with our children about trauma. Especially in college, children may be developing new methods of coping and new support groups. These developments may be good and should be encouraged.
When tragedy strikes on or near a college campus, parents need to help their children assess their immediate risks. If present, parents need to help children develop a plan and act quickly to protect themselves. For most children, though, the risk is gone shortly after a tragedy begins. In the latter case, parents should assess their children’s reactions, coping, and needs. As parents, we want to step in immediately and solve our children’s problems. We would do anything to take away their pain and suffering, even when they are away at college. Yet, children may simply want to talk to talk to someone who listens with empathy and compassion. Moreover, we cannot always protect children from harm or pain. A better approach, therefore, is to listen to children and then help them identify the best ways they can cope. Children can be encouraged to try different approaches. Listening and teaching children how to cope with tragedy and disaster can be much more valuable in the long run than intervening and taking control on children’s behalf.
How can parents console their child when they are miles away?
In this day and age, we are well connected, even when we are far apart. Parents can text, chat, post pictures, or call. Brief check-ins are easy, but more important, they signal presence and availability, even when parents are hundreds of miles away. This generation of young people, perhaps more than any prior, is very comfortable with these forms of connections and the benefits they provide.
How can parents and caregivers manage their own stress and fear while being far away?
Children, even in college, continue to watch, listen, and learn from adults, especially parents. Thus, parents should manage their own fears in the same way they would like their children to do so. Parents can seek support from friends, family, or professionals. Parents can engage in stress-reduction activities (e.g., exercise, reading) or activities directed toward helping others in need. The latter can be an enormously valuable way of focusing outward rather than on themselves (a skill always worth practicing). Parents can—and should—explain their strategies to their children, who may ultimately try and even use successfully some of the same approaches.
Should parents bring their child home?
When tragedy strikes, parents’ gut reaction may be to swoop in and protect children by removing them from a tragic situation. Whether this response is best depends on children’s needs. If children need parents present or are unable to function, parents should consider visiting or bringing their children elsewhere. Yet, visiting or removing children when there is no expressed or clear need does not help children develop effective strategies for managing challenge on their own. Parents need to think carefully about why they are visiting (or picking up children), how that visit will help, and whether the visit is being done for the children’s or the parents’ well being. Open communication can help parents determine whether they should be nearby, whether children should be elsewhere while recovering, or whether parents should provide support at a distance. Regardless of what parents and children decide is best, they should remain partners in helping each other and helping us all respond to and cope with collective and personal tragedies.