“Mama, do people hate us?”

“Why did this happen?”

“Were they bad people?”

It can be overwhelming to think about how to discuss a tragic event with your children. These heartbreaking questions are overwhelming for so many of us. Many of you are wondering what to do and how to make healthy decisions for your family in these difficult times. Maybe your family is directly affected or perhaps the constant media exposure is grating on your emotions and heightening your anxiety. Either way, The Family and Youth Institute is here for you. Take a deep breath and read on for tips and pointers that we hope will guide and help you and your family.

Process Your Own Fears and Anxiety First

You may be feeling anxious and struggling to try to make sense of the recent event and its implications for your family.

First, take a moment to steady yourself. Remember what you do have control over and focus on that!

  • Take a break – including unplugging from news and social media, and take care of yourself. Rely on these suggested coping skills that may help you at this moment. Reach out to people who can help you process your thoughts and feelings. While you may be stressed for good reason, it is important to not pass it on to your children.
  • Keep in mind that how adults react has an impact on kids. Children are watching and often know when their parents are going through a stressful situation. Be conscious of what you say, how you say it, and your non-verbals, because children are interpreting your behavior and learning how to react themselves.
  • If you are still processing your emotions, that is okay. This just may not be the best time to talk to your child. It’s better to gently say, “I really want to talk to you about it…but can we talk about it in a little bit?” Delaying the conversation will give you time to process your own feelings instead of projecting them onto your child.
  • Once you have taken time to process your own feelings, be sure to model both vulnerability and strength when speaking with your child. You do not have to be a pillar of strength that seems to have it all together, but you also do not want to be falling apart at the seams. While it is okay for your child to see you in a controlled state of frustration, you want to make sure you are helping them feel secure and reassured that they have a place to come to without making you more upset.
  • Make sure you are able to listen to your children because it is the key in helping them in the long run.
  • More resources on trauma and healing.

Listen to Your Children

It is important that you listen to your children before jumping into troubleshooting mode or trying to solve what you perceive to be their concerns. First, understand what is going on in your child’s mind: what are they actually worried about? What are their immediate concerns? You do not want to elevate your child’s anxiety by responding to a different concern than the one they are expressing. If you have multiple children at different developmental stages, it might be good to talk at the youngest’s level as a family and then speak individually with older children. A guide on how to speak to your child given their stage of development can be found here:

  • Talking to children about tragedies
  • How to talk to kids about shootings
  • Listening effectively builds a strong bond of trust with your child. Being able to truly hear them while they have deep concerns can build a stronger relationship of mutual respect and security. Listening, rather than problem-solving, lets your child know that you are there for him or her.
  • Listen with more than your ears. Be aware of your child’s nonverbal communication and, most importantly, be aware of your own. Remove distractions (i.e. phone, computers) and give your children your undivided attention. Try not to react to what they say with frustration, hurt, anger or horror. It can discourage them from approaching you in the future and might distract them from getting to the heart of their concern.
  • Help them name their emotions (angry, disappointed, terrified, disgust, scared, etc.). Labeling emotions helps in processing them and ultimately assists in coming back to a more balanced state.
  • This one is important! Don’t minimize their concerns and fears – allow them to express their emotions and concerns. For example, “It sounds like you are feeling (state the emotion). I can understand that” or “I feel that way as well.”
  • Open up the conversation by asking questions, for example,  “What are other things you are fearful/concerned about?”
  • Do not suppress the conversation or else it could manifest in physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach pain. Similarly, if your child is expressing these physical symptoms, consider that they may be expressing their anxiety in a somatic manner and need a safe space to process their emotions.
  • Once they feel they have been heard, then they can begin to heal through faith, feeling secure in their parent’s reaction, and their own actions.

Reassure Your Children

Before talking with your child, consider the message you want to convey in your conversation. This can be a key teachable moment. What values and principles could you teach them through this? By planning a little bit ahead of the conversation, you can ensure your message is clearly communicated. Make sure to match your response to your child’s level of development. How you talk to a 6-year-old will be different than how you talk to a 15-year-old. Simple language can be used with younger children. A longer, more detailed discussion can be reserved for older children in the absence of younger children who may become overwhelmed. Your children may need to talk about what they are hearing and feeling for a number of days in order to process the implications. Just remember the take-home message and feeling, and focus on it. How you talk to and reassure them can make a difference! Use these resources on how to talk to children about tragedies or about shootings.

This tragic event, just like any other life experience, is an opportunity to connect with our children. It provides us with a chance to share our beliefs and values and to exemplify resilience. This is a moment to learn together that when we face hurdles and challenges, we persevere and continue the work. This also serves as an opportunity to develop a sense of grit and shape our youth into moral and successful adults who can deal with adversity and become stronger as a result. Building resilience begins with strengthening our relationship with our children. As parents, our relationship with them can help them navigate the difficult road ahead. Be present, be involved, and connect with your child on a regular basis. Help facilitate their growth through their everyday experiences.

They may share negative thoughts and worries. Help them maintain a balanced perspective. Make sure you educate yourself about the actual implications and do not rely purely on how the media is portraying the information. Do your homework and gain a sense of control. 

It is possible that despite your reassurance, your child might not want to talk about their concerns. That is okay. If they are unable to or refuse to open up to you, suggest other adults who can help them. Also consider teen helplines such as Stones to Bridges, Amala HopelineNaseeha or the Khalil Center Helpline. At the very least, let them know that help exists.

Keeping the Faith – Spiritual Reminders

As parents, we need to model strength in identity and faith. Be proud of your faith identity and convey this message to your children. Research shows that children whose parents transmit information, values, and perspectives about their cultural and religious heritage, which includes having a discussion about obstacles they may face because of the group they belong to, are less negatively affected by discrimination. These discussions should be developmentally appropriate depending on your child’s age. For younger children, this may include messages of pride while for older children the discussion may include talk about the possible discrimination they face in school and greater society.

Holding fast to the rope of Allah” is key during times like these and looking to the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as a family can help ease some of the anxiety you might be feeling collectively. Here are some reminders to help you remember when at times it may be easy to forget.

We must first remind ourselves and our children that Allah is in full control over everything. This is a cornerstone of our faith. Abu al-‘Abbas ‘Abdullah bin ‘Abbas (ra) reports: “One day I was riding behind the Prophet, peace, and blessings be upon him, when he said, ‘Young man, I will teach you some words. Be mindful of Allah, and He will take care of you. Be mindful of Him, and you shall find Him at your side. If you ask, ask of Allah. If you need help, seek it from Allah.”

“Know that if the whole world were to gather together in order to help you, they would not be able to help you except if Allah had written so. And if the whole world were to gather together in order to harm you, they would not harm you except if Allah had written so. The pens have been lifted, and the pages are dry.”

Related by Tirmidhi

Since Allah is in control of everything, then everything happens according to His plans. Try as we might, it is impossible for us to comprehend everything and the “big picture”. But Allah in His infinite knowledge and mercy has all factors under consideration and is “the best of planners.”

“And [remember, O Muhammad], when those who disbelieved plotted against you to restrain you or kill you or evict you [from Makkah]. But they plan, and Allah plans. And Allah is the best of planners.” – Qur’an 8:30

Put your trust in Allah. Think of all the times in your own past when you initially thought something was awful, but then it turned out okay in the long run.

“Perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not.” – Qur’an 2:216

Shaitan breeds on fear. He wants us to be afraid of our neighbors, of the kids at school, of people at the bus stop. Allah asks us and reminds us to not be afraid of anything but Him. It’s okay to feel anxious, but try to remind yourself and your family to put their trust in Allah.

“It is only the Evil One that suggests to you the fear of his followers: Be not afraid of them, but fear Me, if you have Faith.” – Qur’an 3:175

As parents, we need to be optimistic and forward-looking. Tomorrow is another school day and those lunches will not pack themselves. Instead of being fearful, we need to patiently persevere by fulfilling our duties to Allah, our community, and our families. If we do our part, then we will ultimately get the reward for it. Allah promises us that nothing good we do will be lost.

“O you who believe, persevere and endure and remain stationed and protect yourselves with Allah that you may be successful.” – Qur’an 3:200

“Indeed, Allah does not allow to be lost the reward of the doers of good.” – Qur’an 9:120

“Indeed, the people have gathered against you, so fear them.” But it [merely] increased them in faith, and they said, ‘Sufficient for us is Allah, and [He is] the best Disposer of affairs.’” – Qur’an 3:173

There is Work to be Done – Channel the Energy

Children who feel helpless about a situation can end up feeling cynical and angry. However, when they feel there is something they can do to make a difference, they feel empowered.

When speaking with your child, brainstorm the different situations they are worried about and identify different ways they can choose to react. Rehearse until your child is comfortable. Be your child’s role model. Show them through your actions and educate them through resources available in the community and online. Teach them to practice effective coping strategies.

Advocate for Your Child at School

Consider being proactive about being your child’s advocate at school.  It is much better to have an established relationship with your child’s school’s administrators and teachers than to have to only approach them after an incident occurs.

Resources for Community Organizers and Religious Leaders

For Mosques

For Schools

Keep on Marching

These events stay in our collective memory. They may cause some very real frustration and anxiety, and even change the course of your plans. However, they are also teachable and character-building moments to reinforce within ourselves and within our children why we are doing what we are doing. As parents, it is important for us to practice self-care. Avoid overstimulation by constantly checking your news-feeds. This will likely raise your anxiety levels which children will likely pick up on.  As a parent and as a family, connect with communities that provide spaces for encouragement, support, and understanding and serve a healing purpose.

Finally, remember, we are doing everything for the pleasure of Allah, the Most High. He is in full control and is the best of planners. We are being tested to see how we will react. We must hold fast to our principles and values, and continue the work that we need to be doing to improve our nation.

Contributors to this article included: Wahida Abaza, MD; Sarrah AbuLughod, MA; Sameera Ahmed, Ph.D.; Sawssan Ahmed, Ph.D.; Alaa Mohammad, BA; Kameelah Rashad, M.Ed, MRPYC; Nadeem Siddiqi, Ph.D; and Eram Uddin, MA.

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After a Tragic Event