Six Messages for a Child

Apr 19, 2013 | Updated Jun 19, 2013

As an educator and advocate for children, I get many queries after tragedy, especially about how we can help our children cope with what they have heard and seen. I hope these simple messages help.

1. Most of the time, people are trying to do the right thing.

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'"

This message from Mr. Rogers is particularly helpful for a child who needs a strategy to counteract the horror of the image he sees on television or right before him. Day after day, friendly people give up seats on a train to someone who needs it more, share a gift with someone or run in the direction of danger to help, as many did in Boston. Tell these stories to a child. Put the spotlight on the helpers.

2. Anger is OK. Sometimes it is very useful.

For a child, anger is a complicated emotion. Children are sometimes told it's not an appropriate feeling. But they feel it nevertheless, and wonder what to do about it. We can help children to not only manage those feelings, but convert them. Consider heroes like Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi, who have become known over the years for their peaceful, non-violent solutions to world problems. In fact, each of them burned with anger and then turned this anger into real action. Read aloud to your child from great speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr. and by other heroes who spoke out against injustice. Let them see the real human effort involved in converting anger to action.

3. The world is safer than it sometimes seems.

When a tragedy happens, a child's world is shaken. Nothing feels safe. It is important to help children re-frame their world so as to remind him or her of the daily ways we live so securely. We travel, eat, sleep, talk, make friends, go to work and school all many, many times and all around the world every single day and a million times a year. These are all blessings we can count on. Use this opportunity to give your child a notebook or make a file on the computer for your child to keep a diary of the day's events, and to savor in the ordinary. Reminders of how ordinary every day generally is are very comforting to a child who wants to count on the steadiness of the world and believe in it again.

4. The world is genuinely beautiful.

The television images are gruesome after a tragedy. It is very challenging to keep those images from children, although we can try. There is an antidote and that is the beauty of the world itself. Collect such images with your child, in photos and in writing. Create photo book collections of trees, flowers and people's faces. Remind your child these things exist, and some are of nature and some are made by man, but that we can practice each day to find beauty all around us. That takes practice too.

5. Learning how to read helps us make sense of the world.

The child who is overwhelmed by images can feel powerless. This is an opportunity to talk about the power of words. Reading gives us control, giving us ways to find what we need on our own and also makes us happy. Show children examples of this. Learn more about emergency workers and what they do in their jobs. Learn together about ways to solve problems. Find out new information about different parts of the world. Read picture books that comfort, soothe and distract.

6. Our simple and every day acts of kindness will make a difference.

Doing simple acts of kindness can counteract the awful feeling we all get after a tragedy that we don't know how to help. Keep a notebook together called "Daily Acts of Kindness" and fill it each evening with things that have touched you both, or things you both have done for others. These actions are comforting both for the giver and the receiver.