First & foremost, the best advice I can give you not only applies to this conversation, but many, many other difficult ones:
The most important thing for a parent to do in any difficult conversation is simply to BE & STAY open to communication. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you need to give your child a particular piece of information, or say a particular phrase. Parenting is never accomplished in one moment. Parenting is all about repeated experiences/events/conversations. Remember–it’s all about the RELATIONSHIP, and you want to have the kind of relationship where your children know that they can come to you to talk about difficult, awkward, or emotional topics. So: make this a “talkable moment,” be honest, calm, serious, supportive, loving, and listenlistenlisten.
That said, I know I’d want some concrete advice, too, so here goes:
Recommendations differ for different ages. The youngest children may not need any information–if they haven’t been exposed and you’re sure they won’t be, you may very well be able to avoid the topic of this event altogether. (read footnote #1)
Children typically do better when they hear difficult/emotional information from a trusted source first, so consider bringing the topic up yourself with an older child. They are likely to overhear something somewhere anyway. It’s important that they be able to get accurate, age-appropriate information from you to help them balance–or correct–what they’ve already heard.
Your child may not have a strong emotional reaction to the news–it is an abstract concept to many of them. Instead, they may be curious or confused. This is normal.
An older child/teenager may be able to understand the bigger picture and may indeed have an emotional reaction. Remember that there is a wide range of “normal” emotional responses, including anger, fear, sadness, confusion, and more.
Younger children sometimes ‘test out’ emotions, by reacting to this sort of information with stronger feeling than you might expect. This is typically a normal and healthy way for children to learn about emotion. Use your intuition with regard to whether it’s an ‘experimental’ emotional response or a sign that your child is having (too) hard of a time coping with this or other hidden problems.
It’s absolutely fine to share YOUR feelings with your child, as long as you are doing so (relatively) calmly, with role-modeling or teaching in mind. In other words, try to talk about your feelings, not demonstrate them.
Do you have to drive by the building? If your young child asks you what happened, you can say
“A plane crashed into that building today.”
With older, or more inquisitive children, you might add in more details, either intially, or as part of the conversation, including phrases like:
- A man flew a plane into that building.
- He did it on purpose.
- A man who worked there died, as did the pilot. Other people were injured.
- That building has many government workers in it, and the pilot blamed the government for his problems.
- It’s normal to feel angry, even very angry sometimes, but it’s not normal to act out feelings like that. He has hurt many, many people with his choices.
Tune in to what is ‘behind’ your child’s questions. What sounds like a request for more information may actually be your child’s indirect request for reassurance. They may need to hear that: they are safe; such acts are actually rare, that planes/buildings/Austin are all safe places for them, and that you will keep them safe.
Be prepared for questions to come up again later, even much later, and at odd times. As children develop, so to does their ability to understand the world. They may “re-process” this information in 6 or 12 or 24+ months, and need to talk about it with you again. Just be patient and loving and remember to focus on open communication. (footnote #2)
FYI, some of the signs of a child who is having serious problems adjusting can include: persistent somatic complaints, problems sleeping or eating, inability or disinterest in normal/previously enjoyable activites, depression/sadness most of the day more days than not, talk or hints of suicide or worthlessness. If you see these signs, please consult with a professional right away.
#1. But. Please don’t avoid talking about death in general, okay? It’s much easier for children to grasp the concept when they get to learn it abstractly, not while also processing a serious personal loss.
#2. Also, hold your precious babies close tonight. I’m doing that, and also sending a little loving light in the direction of the children and grandchildren of (all) the victims and the pilot’s 12 year old daughter, too.