Hobie & Monk: Coping with tragedy

Hobie & Monk: Coping with tragedy
(Cat VanVliet)

We cherish living in Alexandria because it’s a vibrant and diverse community with the warm and closely-knit feel of a small town. This strong sense of community has never been more evident than in the past week, as friends, neighbors and colleagues mourn the death of a beloved Alexandrian, Ruthanne Lodato.

It’s hard coming to grips with the startling nature of Lodato’s murder. In particular, many parents have asked us about strategies for handling our children’s reactions, and we want to share some ideas.

As psychologists and parents, we know professionally and personally how difficult it can be to handle our responses to events like this while attending to our children’s needs. In recent years, we have experienced (directly or indirectly) what often seems like an endless stream of incidents involving loss of life, from natural disasters to violent events.

We have seen good, general parenting advice that is helpful in our situation, including suggestions like remaining open to and guided by our children’s questions (if and when they arise), keeping to normal school and family routines when possible, and limiting access to media coverage.

These are good guidelines, but we must consider that differences in age, temperament and experience make each child unique. And because this tragedy occurred in our midst, many of our children were exposed to information and impact regardless of our parenting decisions. A few of our schools were placed on lockdown, more than a few families still have significant police and media presence in our neighborhoods, and some of our children knew the victim personally.

It comes down to this: We strive to protect our loved ones from every possible disaster and tragedy. And this: we can’t.

In these circumstances, our goal as parents is reducing the risk to our families by taking necessary precautions and helping our children manage the occasionally overwhelming thoughts and emotions that accompany such tragic events. In this way, we are modeling and teaching psychological competence for unusual and challenging events. We do this best when we understand and manage our thoughts and feelings effectively.

It is important to separate sadness from any fear or anxiety about safety. Many adults have a tough time grieving and communicating about loss, and we often pass this along inadvertently to our children. It’s OK to be sad around your children and to share your feelings about losing someone important to you. Let your kids respond however they’d like.

You are modeling how to honor someone’s memory and process loss, and they are paying attention (even if they don’t seem to be). After a death, a child may not want to talk at all. Others may have very direct, difficult and even gruesome questions, and you will need to be calm and deliberate in deciding what information is appropriate to share and how best to do so.

As we move around our city this week, many are feeling fearful and anxious about personal safety. Officials have advised all of us to take normal precautions, including locking doors and checking on visitors to our homes. This may be the first time you’ve had these kinds of conversations with your children, and of course the exact nature of your discussion will vary depending on your family situation.

But adult fear is very different than adult sadness — you’re conveying important information. It helps children, though, when you are calm and matter-of-fact. Deal with any of your (very natural) worries away from the kids.

As always, adults and children who tend to be more anxious or fearful anyway may experience more frequent or intense anxiety now, which can be typical during times of stress. Use — or help your children use — the strategies that have helped them regulate feelings and behavior in the past.

It’s also important that you do not assume or expect that your children should feel similarly. Instead, leave room for everyone to cope in their way and keep an eye out for any big disruptions.

Adults can take a lot of this same advice to heart. Monitor your well-being, stay in touch with regular support systems of friends, colleagues and family, and manage your media consumption. In the end, most children and adults are remarkably resilient, but as always, please seek professional help for yourself and/or your children if there’s a severe change in normal functioning that doesn’t resolve relatively quickly.

Our hearts go out to everyone here in Alexandria.
To submit questions to Hobie & Monk, email hobieandmonk@alextimes.com.

Hobie and Monk are two Alexandria women with husbands, children, dogs, jobs, mortgages, unmet New Year’s resolutions, obsessions with impractical shoes, English novels … and Ph.D.s in clinical psychology. Their advice, while fabulous, should not be construed as therapeutic within a doctor-patient context or substituted for the advice of readers’ personal advisors.