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Go Ask Mom

'Look for the helpers:' Helping kids find comfort in the face of tragedy, terror

Posted August 14

As I watched the events unfold in Charlottesville over the weekend, my heart broke.

I graduated from the University of Virginia. My husband is a graduate. My dad has two degrees from Virginia. My mom earned her master's degree there. We all came from elsewhere - the Midwest, central New York state and New England - to learn at Thomas Jefferson's University, as we called it.

I don't go back a lot, but when I do, it always feels like home. We walk around the Downtown Mall, shop the Corner for subs and Virginia memorabilia, explore campus and just sit and take in the beauty of the lawn and the Rotunda, which together, with nearby Monticello, are a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I can't say that I was surprised by what unfolded in Charlottesville over the weekend, but the rhetoric, symbols and violence used is absolutely shameful and can't be tolerated.

"Their tiki torches may be fueled by citronella but their ideas are fueled by hate, & have no place in civil society," wrote GOP Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah on Twitter. "We should call evil by its name. My brother didn't give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home."

I fear for the future of our country, but, at the same time, I'm buoyed by the goodness that has come out of this tragedy.

This is what I focused on as I searched the news this weekend.

The strong condemnation from so many - but not enough - voices.

The support for the families of the three people who died.

The peaceful vigils and rallies around the country to honor the lives lost and support the good people of Charlottesville.

So, as I field questions from my own kids about what's happening in a place they've come to love and cherish, I'll focus on the good stuff. And I'll read the words of Mr. Rogers, which I shared after the horror in Newtown five years ago.

He wrote about how to help kids understand tragedy and terror in “The Mister Rogers Parenting Book," the last book he worked on before his death in 2003. His mother's words helped him make some sense of tragic events.

"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,'" he wrote. "To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."

He went on ...

Even if we wanted to, it would be impossible to give our children all the reasons for such things as war, terrorists, abuse, murders, major fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes. If they ask questions, our best answer may be to ask them, "What do you think happened?" If the answer is "I don't know," then the simplest reply might be something like, '"I'm sad about the news, and I'm worried. But I love you, and I'm here to care for you."

If we don't let children know it's okay to feel sad and scared, they may think something is wrong with them when they do feel that way. They certainly don't need to hear all the details of what's making us sad or scared, but if we can help them accept their own feelings as natural and normal, their feelings will be much more manageable for them.

Angry feelings are part of being human, especially when we feel powerless. One of the most important messages we can give our children is, "It's okay to be angry, but it's not okay to hurt ourselves or others." Besides giving children the right to their anger, we can help them find constructive things to do with their feelings. This way, we'll be giving them useful tools that will serve them all their life, and help them to become the worlds' future peacemakers -- the world's future helpers."

And then I'll tell them that the adults in this country have a lot of work to do.

Sarah is Go Ask Mom's editor.

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