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How activities can help children cope with death, tragedy, and fear

As I child, I can remember seeing images on the TV of a hurricane—that bright green blob on the station’s radar screen—tracking towards the East Coast.  Now, we were living in Pennsylvania, and that hurricane was probably over a thousand miles to the south. But the meteorologist talk was lost on my little mind, and I expected that storm to churn up the entire coast in a matter of minutes. I cast nervous glances out the window, sure that dark, destructive clouds would appear on the horizon any moment.

I didn’t share my fears with anyone. I didn’t tell my brothers I was certain of our imminent doom. Mom may have noticed that I was suddenly interested in flashlights and wind speeds, but I could never verbalize what was paralyzing me inside. I just bottled it in, silent and serious and stony and scared, with a tight stomach and a vigilant eye on the sky.

All kids process things differently, and I was a particularly anxious kid! But there’s no escaping the fact that we live in a world where scary things happen, and things much more real—and much more frightening—than my imaginary hurricane. Newtown, Connecticut. The bombing at the Boston Marathon. 9/11. And thousands of other events that never show up in the newspapers, but are talked about on the school bus, in the cafeteria, and across the playground. What can parents do to help their children understand and cope with the grief or fear that these events create? Is there a wrong way? A right way? And do children even process grief or fear the same way adults do?

First, parents need to understand that kids and adults see things differently. Details can be lost on children—like the speeds of hurricanes—and the incomplete picture that results can be frightening to them. Don’t assume that your kids know all the facts, because they probably don’t. You might want to protect them from the tragedy by keeping back information, vaguely answering questions, or perhaps not talking about it at all. While there are some things your kids don’t need to know, completely keeping them in the dark means they have to fill in the details for themselves, and that sometimes leads to a scarier picture.

Of course, talking isn’t always enough. Retired therapist Christy Monson says there’s a lot parents can do with their kids, and she recommends artwork as a medium for helping children release their emotions and concerns. Finger painting, sand, clay, even just drawing can all be good, and the more tactile the medium, the more emotion will be elicited by the children. For children that hold things in the way I did, these activities can help them communicate feelings that were otherwise too hard or too scary to put into words. And once parents—and the children themselves—understand the words, healing and comfort can begin to happen.
Christy says that two principles are absolutely key:


1)   Love is greater than hate.

2)   Light chases away dark.

Parents can help their children invite more of these positive feelings into their lives, which can replace the darker feelings of anger and fear and heal the marks they left behind.   
So when scary things happen—or when something invisible seems to be bothering your child—remember that hiding the problem from your kids isn’t going to solve anything. Instead, help them discover their feelings, communicate their thoughts, and heal their hurt through tactile activities that gently release their emotions. Cuddle close, release the bad, and invite the good! To see Christy talk teach these principles herself, check out her appearance on Fox 13 in Salt Lake City.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: If your child is struggling with fear, anger, or other negative emotions, I would absolutely recommend Christy’s book below. I love her gentle approach. The text and illustrations are simple and wonderfully accessible to children. It’s general enough to use for all sorts of situations—national tragedies, lost pets—but powerful enough to help kids when even the scariest things happen.

Like the article? We bet you’ll love this book:

Written after the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Love, Hugs, and Hope: When Scary Things Happen is an invaluable tool for helping children identify feelings that overwhelm them with anx…

Love, Hugs, and Hope

Christy Monson

Buy Now

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