How to talk with your children about tragedy

The Springfield community has come together to cope with the recent tragedy and loss of 10-year-old Hailey Owens. If you have children, you may be wondering the best way to discuss this situation with them (and/or tragedy and death in general). Chances are, your child has already been exposed to some details at school and may have brought up the topic. If you have yet to address it, here are a few tips for discussing the recent event with your children, courtesy of OCH psychologist Dr. Erin Golden:

  • Find out what your child knows & doesn’t know about the situation. As this situation has been widely publicized, there is a large chance that your child has already heard about it. If you are apprehensive about bringing up the topic, allow your child to mention it first; or casually bring it up if it is apparent the child has been exposed to the information such as watching the news with the family.  Make sure to address the facts and correct their misconceptions.
  •  Make sure what you share is age appropriate. Until kids are about 5 or 6 years old, their view of the world is very literal. So explain the death in basic and concrete terms.  Also remember that kids’ questions may sound much deeper than they actually are. For example, a 5-year-old who asks where someone who died is now probably isn’t asking whether there’s an afterlife. Rather, kids might be satisfied hearing that someone who died is now in the cemetery. Kids from the ages of about 6 to 10 start to grasp the finality of death, even if they don’t understand that it will happen to every living thing one day.  Often, kids this age personify death and think of it as the “boogeyman” or a ghost or a skeleton. They deal best with death when given accurate, simple, clear, and honest explanations about what happened.  As kids mature into teens, they start to understand that every human being eventually dies, regardless of grades, behavior, wishes, or anything they try to do.  As your teen’s understanding about death evolves, questions may naturally come up about mortality and vulnerability. A teen who asks why someone had to die probably isn’t looking for literal answers, but starting to explore the idea of the meaning of life. Teens also tend to experience some guilt, particularly if one of their peers died.
  •  Don’t use euphemisms: Although you want to keep your conversation age appropriate, using terms such as “she went to sleep,” or “she is visiting someone,”  or even that she is “lost” to describe what happened can do more harm than good. Because young children think so literally such euphemisms can make them more fearful, as they may then become afraid to “sleep,” or be afraid that mom and dad may “go to sleep” and never wake up; or that if a person leaves they make never return.
  •  Be honest with kids and encourage questions. This can be hard because you may not have all of the answers. But it’s important to create an atmosphere of comfort and openness, and send the message that there’s no one right or wrong way to feel. You might also share any spiritual beliefs you have about death.
  •  Validate your child’s feelings. Are your kids feeling scared? That’s okay. This is a normal reaction. Are they nervous? Worried? Ensure them that it’s okay for them to feel this way, don’t downgrade their emotions.
  • Watch their media exposure. There has been a lot of coverage on about this incident over the past few days, and it’s going to continue. Overexposure to the incident can do more harm than good as your child copes.
  •  Review basic safety reminders with your children. Now is a good time to remind your kids not to walk up to vehicles, wander off alone, or talk to strangers. If you feel as if your child should be exposed to more education on self-defense, there are local martial arts locations are offering free child self defense classes for parents who feel this is necessary.
  •  Maintain your routine. Amidst a tragedy, it’s best to keep up with your child’s usual activities (school, extracurricular activities & social events) to help the child maintain a sense of normality. This is the healthiest thing for kids.
  • Know when to seek additional help. Counselors are on staff at local school to talk with children on a temporary basis. After a few weeks, if your child is still have nightmares and/or is having difficulty coping with their normal routine (hiding behind parents, afraid to go to school or hang out with friends, afraid to play outside), it may be time to seek additional counseling help.  

OCH joins the Springfield community in mourning the loss of Hailey Owens. Below is a list of opportunities to show your support:

  •  Saturday, February 22, there is an all you can eat pancake breakfast at Applebee’s on E. Primrose.  The cost is $5 and all proceeds go to the Owens family.
  • There is also a candlelight march in memory of Hailey this Saturday, February 22, at 8:00 pm at Commercial Street and Campbell in Springfield.  
  • Hailey Owens Benefit Poker Tournamen11am Sunday, February 23, at Dennis’ Place, 921 W. Sunshine in Springfield  Sign up starts at 11:00 a.m with the first deal promptly at noon. 
  • FUND FOR OWENS FAMILY: Empire Bank has set up a memorial account in Hailey’s name to help the family with expenses. Donations can be made at any branch.  You can also mail contributions to:

Empire Bank
C/O Hailey Owens Memorial Fund
P.O. Box 3397
Springfield, MO 65808

  •  And the Missouri Department of Health is asking everyone to wear pink and purple on Friday, February 21, for Hailey.

goldenErin Golden, PsyD is a psychologist at OCH Christian County Clinic in Nixa. She offers evaluation and counseling for adult and pediatric patients. Dr. Golden worked as a psychologist in Arkansas since 2011. She received her education from the University of Michigan and the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology. Dr. Golden is currently a member of the Missouri Association of Play Therapists and the American Psychological Association.

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