Coping with Tragedy: The Gifted Child’s “What Ifs”

April 17, 2013

By Elizabeth D. Jones

Elizabeth Jones is the President and Founder of The Institute for Educational Advancement. She has worked with gifted and special needs children and their families for more than 20 years. Her current work emphasizes advocacy and the development and administration of specialized programs for underserved youth. She also consults with gifted children and their families to help them find solutions to meet each child’s intellectual, physical, spiritual, social and emotional needs.

Tragedies make us feel helpless. As adults looking for answers, dealing with heartache and trying to process what has happened, it is vital that we honor the fears and concerns of our children, as well. This can be extremely difficult when we don’t understand the events ourselves. It is hard to grasp entering into a conversation with our children without knowing the answers to who, what, why and if it will happen again.

Children can be extremely affected by catastrophes, whether acts of nature or human infliction. They see adults as the gatekeepers to their safety; but when the adults in a child’s world have no control over a tragedy occurring, children often lose their sense of security. They just cannot understand why.

Gifted children exhibit high levels of intensity and sensitivity and can be even more deeply impacted by events such as the Boston bombings. Not only do they feel a loss of security, but they also have a profound feeling of empathy for the victims and a tremendous need to understand and “fix” the problem.

A six-year-old client going through some stress recently had a dream that he was able to bring back a World War II battleship to the New York harbor on September 11, 2001, and the ship saved the Twin Towers. He used what he knew to fix a problem – and prevent a horrible tragedy – that happened years before he was born. It brought him comfort.

Emotionally sensitive, highly able students feel very deeply and have a strong sense of justice and moral fairness. It is hard enough to cope with horrific events; yet, when you feel a responsibility to fix the problem, it can be completely overwhelming. Gifted children have an early awareness of complex problems facing humanity. They experience emotional intensity at a greater level than their non-gifted counterparts. As a result, their concerns should be understood and respected. Telling children they should not worry or think about a tragic event that is now part of their frame of reference can cause children to feel inadequate because they are not able to control their emotions. Feeling insecure can trigger more anxiety and loss of control.

Michael Piechowski speaks about the complex inner lives, early ethical concerns and heightened awareness of the world gifted children experience. This often causes internal confusion and tension between “what is” and “what ought to be.”

How can we help our children cope with tragic events when we don’t even understand the why? Here are some suggestions:

  • Gifted children have vivid imaginations. Without appropriate, honest conversation, they will often imagine the worst that could happen to their family, pets, friends and others.
  • Audrey_Hepburn_quoteIf possible, be the first one to communicate the event. Give your child honest answers, but do not overload them with details. Limit exposure to media and graphic images. Be prepared to have several conversations that may include asking the same question over and over. Gifted children have a strong affective memory, which causes them to relive significant moments in their lives. Your child will not forget about it, even if you stop them from talking about it.
  • Be consistent and reassuring, but do not make unrealistic promises. Children take cues from their parents. Share your concerns and grief, but do not do all the talking. Listen and let your child take the lead. Ensure they know that you always do the best you can to make them and other family members safe.
  • Coordinate information between school, home and other locations where your child spends time. Articulate your child’s concerns and deep feelings of empathy to the teachers and others who interact with your child. Remind these people that your child is likely to react differently than peers and that your child is likely to continue to remember and be affected by the event for a longer time than classmates. It is important for everyone in your child’s life to understand this.
  • Reestablish a schedule or routine as soon as possible. The normalcy of activities is comforting and can assist children in healing.
  • Work with your child to establish ways to take action to support the victims. Encourage and suggest positive ways they can make a difference, like raising money or writing notes.
  • Reinforce things in your child’s life that provide safety, including police, fire fighters, school officials and protocol of what to do when a potential problem occurs. Discuss the fact that, although tragedies occur, they are rare; it is important to be prepared, though.
  • Encourage emotional, physical, creative and spiritual outlets that can relieve your child’s tensions. This is a good opportunity to discuss ways to rejuvenate yourself when difficult things happen. Expression through the arts can be calming.

Most importantly, be together and reach out to help. And, by far, touch, understanding and unconditional love are the most powerful coping mechanisms for all of us.

What strategies have helped you talk to your child about tragedy? Please share with others in the comment section below.