Talking to children about tragedy and death is a tough topic for parents to tackle. The accident at Dreamworld on the Gold Coast, may prompt kids to think about life and death more than usual.
The connected nature of our world flicks images of tragic events onto our televisions and smart phones in an instant. It makes it difficult for parents to screen this information from children. I've previously written about explaining tragedies based on hate, in my article on the Orlando shootings. But things are a bit different when the tragedy is the result of an accident, not a crime.
A few days ago four people lost their lives in an accident at a favourite theme park in Australia. Dreamworld is a place that many Aussie kids have visited. Most of us have sat on that ride. Most of us have seen Dreamworld as a place where dreams come true, not where bad things happen.
It's natural for kids to wonder if theme parks are safe, in light of this accident. And it's normal for people to ponder their own mortality. But if those thoughts are turning into worries or fears, now's a good time to talk about the tragedy.
If your child or teenager has seen a tragedy on television that has left them fearful, try these tips to help them feel safe again.
Talking to kids about a tragedy
Most adults tend to swerve in one of two ways when a tragedy happens and kids are curious or worried. They either feel the need to talk about it a lot, or think they shouldn't talk about it at all.
The best place is somewhere in the middle.
Do talk about it in a focused conversation where you can explain what you know and feel. Put the accident in perspective and answer any questions. Then let things be for a few days unless they come to you with questions. The only time I'd bring it up is if my child started doing something different that seemed suspiciously linked to the tragedy.
Here's four things I'd aim to share during that main conversation:
1) Accidents happen in life. We can't control everything. Sometimes people get hurt or die, not because of something they've done. Help kids to see that accidents aren't a punishment, they just happen. And they happen a lot. Point out all the times they've had an accident and survived. That fall of their bike, their broken arm on the monkey bars, the close shave in a car park...
2) Life is for living, not worrying about dying. There are so many great adventures in life that we miss out on if we think too much about dying. None of us know how long our life will be, but we all get to choose what we make of today. We get to choose if we spend it having fun or living in fear.
3) It's normal to feel sad and scared when a tragedy happens. The best thing we can do is notice that we're feeling that way and talk to someone about it. These feelings should pass, and will disappear quicker the more we share them with other people.
4) We live in a very safe country. Point out all the people who have a job to look after us and keep us safe. Police, paramedics, doctors, fire fighters and safety inspectors all work hard to make Australia a safe place to live.
You can come back and reinforce these points as you need to in later days. These are important truths we all need to hang onto in life. Particularly when challenges or horrible things happen. So touch on them when you need to, but don't hark on about them either.
Dealing with fears that surface from a tragic event
For some kids a tragedy won't be something that passes in a week or two. The negative thoughts can start to embed and develop into fears that impact on their life at a deeper level. If you're starting to see your child withdraw from things they usually enjoy or act fearful of leaving you, it's best to get some help.
Some of the fears that can develop for young people after a tragedy, are:
A fear of death. The realisation that this life will end one day can be overwhelming. Some kids will not have realised this before and might struggle to come to grips with the idea of death.
A fear of losing family members. The thought of being alone in this world is something that rattles us all. But for a child, the idea that mum or dad might disappear can be frightening. They can start to think about how much life would change if that happened.
A fear of leaving home. Most of us see our home as a safe place to be, and kids are no different. Big fears can force them to seek refuge at home and limit their enjoyment of life.
Unexplained fears and worries. Some kids won't be able to explain why they're so scared. You might see panic attacks about little things that don't make sense. Or tears and tantrums might return for children who had grown out of this stage.
If you see these sorts of fears gaining a foothold in your child's mind, get help. Make an appointment to see your family doctor or a counsellor. These are thoughts that need to unraveling and putting into perspective.
And in the meantime, don't sweat the small changes they make to their life to feel safer. With the Dreamworld accident, if they decide they don't want to go to a theme park at the moment. It's okay to make alternative plans rather than pushing the point. Go to the beach, on a bush walk or picnic instead.
Most kids will overcome their worries without any help if given enough space to get life going again.
Time is a great healer.
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