5 Tips For Talking To Your Kids About The Death Of A Schoolmate

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It has been one year since the murder of 16-year-old Brianna Ghey, who was tragically killed by two other teenagers – both of which have now been given life sentences

The horrific incident has led one expert to lead the way in helping parents explain situations like Brianna’s death, to their kids.

Mental health expert Lily-Jo has shared key advice about how to give children appropriate information around tragedies like Brianna’s murder, so that they don’t feel compelled to find out information in secret, or hide their emotions from parents.

The author of ‘Talking to Children About Mental Health’ has spoken out about how we can create safe environments which validate children’s feelings about events, no matter how shocked we ourselves may be.

Five tips on how to speak to your child about death

1) Listen to them

Young people have access to news in the palm of their hand 24/7, meaning they can be hyper connected to the most awful events around the world, or view footage of disturbing events because of lack of regulation of social media apps. Research has shown that young people react to incidents thousands of miles away as though they were happening to people they know intimately, which increases the amount of stress and trauma they face even just hearing about the death of someone like Brianna.

If a young person seeks support from you for dealing with the death of a school mate or from hearing about a traumatic event, be sure to choose your words carefully without minimising their feelings.

Phrases like

● ‘I am sorry you are feeling this so deeply’

● ‘I am here to help in any way I can’

Can make them feel seen and heard in the midst of their pain. And maybe even offering to make them their favourite drink or snack can be a soothing experience for them.

Using ‘listening language’ is a key way to develop a safe and secure environment for your child to express their emotions after they’ve experienced a difficult event. When we use ‘listening language’, we show our children and young people that we are not only hearing them, but also understanding them. For example, if your child doesn’t want to go to school or go out with friends because a friend has recently died or they’ve heard about a traumatic event like the murder of someone their age, examples of ‘listening language’ might be:

– ‘I totally hear you. Can you explain a bit more about why you think / feel like that?’
– ‘How does that make you feel?’
– ‘Is there something that might make you feel safer doing it?’

‘Lacking language’, on the other hand, dismisses a child’s feelings, for example, saying “You’re being silly” or “you just need to move on”, to their expressions
of anxiety. When a child feels heard and understood, it is more likely that anxiety will reduce, and they will feel safer about looking towards the future again.

2) Help them to deal with their anger

In our culture, we often think of anger as a purely negative emotion that we should repress – perhaps we were punished, isolated, or criticized by our parents or caregivers when we showed frustration. But it is not the feeling of anger that is problematic. Many terrible and unjust things do happen in this world, including the murder of innocent children, and in situations like this, anger is a natural response. Anger only becomes an issue when we act it out in unhealthy ways and hurt others or ourselves.

One of the best things we can do to help our children cope with traumatic events is to help them deal with their anger in a healthy way. Writing an anger letter can be an amazing way to help kids release their thoughts and feelings. Encourage them to get it all out on the page, but importantly, to conclude the letter with the sentence ‘ I now choose to…..’. This is the part that empowers children to decide what they want to do next, rather than feeling like they are simply at the mercy of a painful situation. Do they want to try and let it go? Do they want to send forgiveness to the addressee? Giving them a choice over what they want to do next, helps to position them as a person with agency in the situation, rather than someone who is helpless, and is a really important part of emotional healing.

3) Help them to find a way to mourn

Writing letters to the deceased, making cards or memorial videos, lighting candles are all examples of mourning rituals that can help children and young people to process their grief.

4) Help them not to grieve all of the time

Suggest creating a memory box, with significant items relating to the death or other traumatic event. This is a very helpful PTSD exercise called ‘boxing’, which creates a fixed time and space for the child to grieve and release all the painful and difficult feelings surrounding the event.

5) Offer ideas for gratitude practice 

For example giving your young person a notebook to write three things they are grateful for in each morning and evening.

How do we validate children’s feelings, when feeling awful ourselves?

Lily- Jo said: “When I first heard about Brianna Ghey’s murder, my first emotions were shock, disgust, anger, and fear. We must be genuinely compassionate to ourselves as parents, remembering that we are human and that intense, emotional reactions to horrible news are normal.”

First, acknowledge your feelings. You may want to put your hand on your chest and say to yourself: “I’m having a really hard time dealing with this right now. This is a lot to process”. Then, take some time to park or compartmentalize your feelings as you go to talk to your children, with the agreement that you will come back later and look after yourself, whether that’s through giving your emotions the attention they need, using mindfulness, or doing a relaxing activity to destress.

Give your children the opportunity to talk through their emotions without offering them solutions – never underestimate the beauty and power of uninterrupted listening. This will help them feel validated – rather than like their feelings are something they must repress or ‘fix’.