Candid + Calm

Lessons in Talking About Tragedy from 40 Years as Dean of Students

Some days—in fact, many days—it feels like everything we hear and read in the news is negative. Floods, fires, earthquakes, war, terrorist attacks, school shootings—it’s hard to avoid having to deal with tragedy and trauma almost on a daily basis. And this is exacerbated by the fact that as humans, we are already hard wired to focus on the negative.

As world events have unfolded over the past many decades—from the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 to today—I’ve been able to see the impact of these incidents on members of college communities, especially students. I’ve also had a chance to witness the way that campus leadership (particularly college and university presidents) have chosen to communicate with, calm and support their students. This includes letters, emails, social media postings, interviews and one-on-one interactions.

With that in mind, perhaps we might take a lesson from these leaders in higher ed as we think about how to best explain all of these challenging and sometimes tragic events to children and assure them that they can be confident that the world is relatively safe and its people are basically good.

What have these effective communications from college presidents looked like over the years? Here are some of the common threads:

  • They acknowledge the situation candidly, directly, authentically, and factually without creating more fear or angst.

  • They use calming words.

  • They take the time to actively listen and respond to questions.

  • They validate all emotions and feelings that have been or are being shared and encourage them to continue to share how they are feeling.

  • They emphasize that safety is a top priority.

  • They explain that no one needs to feel alone or unsafe, as everyone is in this together.

  • They invite everyone to help and support each other.

So, when talking with your child about difficult, tragic events, you might think about using this list to help you craft your approach. At the end of the day, being willing to address these issues openly and honestly, expressing your care, compassion and love is what will matter the most.

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