A Letter to Your Family from Ours

A mother gives her daughter a kiss on the cheek, against an autumn background.

Dear Families,

As we reflect on the murder of George Floyd, we are all confronted with the tragic realities of systemic racism throughout our country, an urgent and important issue that impacts families and children every day.

Layered onto the existing stress and trauma brought on by the pandemic, many feel overwhelmed. As a parent, you may be worried about what your children think and feel when they see the pictures in the news, overhear stories of violence and hate, see or experience it firsthand, or notice our anxiety about what happened, and what may happen next. Children are likely to feel confused, anxious, or have questions. And we know you are deeply troubled yourselves. How do we respond to children’s questions about tragedies that seem inexplicable? How do we help children understand the complexities of human behavior and that one person’s actions are not reflective of an entire group?

Extraordinary events like these not only test us as citizens and human beings sharing a planet, they also test us as parents, both as guardians of our children trying to keep them emotionally safe, and as our children’s teachers trying to raise young children who become enlightened and empathetic adults. Children learn from what we say and don’t say about the world, and their place in it, from our actions.

For young children in times of unease, the strength of our calm presence and simple reassurances help make the world a safe and manageable place. Because adults determine the emotional climate for young children, adult reactions to difficult events will impact children’s reactions. Many people — from young children unable to put feelings into thoughts to adults who have lived through years of world events — have similar questions when facing catastrophic events: “Will that happen to me? Will I always be okay? Will you be okay? Will everyone I love be okay? Will the world be okay?” Some children may see the images on television or in their community and become anxious: particularly those who live in areas where events are taking place, have family members or friends directly impacted, have been impacted themselves, or those that tend to be very empathetic or sensitive to potential threats.

As children get older and their understanding of the world outside their home grows, they not only need us to be calm and reassuring, they may need to ask questions and talk about the larger issues: life is unpredictable; natural and human-made incidents periodically create catastrophe and tragedy. Why? Sometimes innocent people die and some people are more vulnerable than others. Why? How can I help people who are hurting? Of course, adults don’t always have the answers, but allowing children to voice their concerns and providing rational and thoughtful responses can be reassuring.

There is no magic formula or right way to respond to a child struggling to understand a tragic event. It is important to know and respect your child’s way of being and coping, even when it is different from your own. Further, if you are having difficulty coping with this very tragic event, it is important you seek support for yourself.

If you’d like to read more, click on the full letter below, which includes ideas for answering tough questions and what you can do as a family. Additionally, we offer an in-depth guide for parents and caregivers managing the complexities of tragedy, change, stress, and resilience. Download “What Happened to MY World?” and explore our other resources on talking to your children during challenging times.

With thoughts of healing and hope,

Rachel Robertson, Vice President, Education and Development