When Words Fail: Small Children and Tragedy

Dear Raising Harmony Members,

For the second time since starting this blog a few short months ago, difficult, and now tragic, events have torn open the vulnerable world of small children.  There are no words that can meet the depth of sorrow for those who lost children in this latest school shooting.  Many will write for those families and that community and offer them what they can in their grief.  But today I feel compelled to share some of my thoughts with you, our early childhood community, on some immediate and critical ways to meet the needs of our own young children in times of tragedy. 

Regretfully these suggestions come mostly from personal experience as a young mother who was suddenly thrown into the chasm of terror on September 11, 2001. The circumstances of that day impacted our young family in very personal ways.  Although the end result did not end in disaster for us, the echo of that heartbreak live with me every day.  With time passing, I have been able to look back and feel confident in the ways I chose to help my young children get through those first few hours, days and weeks.

Maybe these suggestions will help you with your own boys and girls. Just as importantly, we as professionals have an obligation to help the young mothers and fathers who have learned within the music to trust us and value our guidance.  Our music therapy training and background then gives us further depth of knowledge in mental health and development. This is the time to put into practice all that you know – whether in the music or words.  Here then are some simple, but tested, strategies for our very small charges and those that love them.

Turn the television off.

Turn the radio and computer off.  Leave the newspaper folded.  Think about how words will travel in every conversation.  Children have a complex and sensitive emotional life long before they are able to formulate or understand words.  I don’t think we appreciate the extent that the child picks up and absorbs the emotional turmoil that surrounds them.  As experts in musical language we understand that vocal timbre, tempo of speech, and inflection of phrases indicates emotional meaning.  Even the smallest child will hear the agitation and fear of this non-verbal communication by all the televised reports.  And they will absorb the tension and apprehension.  For many years (well frankly to this day) I compulsively turn on the television or radio for a moment listening not so much for the words but for the indication through the tone of voice that all is right with the world.


Be still with the child and just listen to what they have to say.  There are few words that can explain these situations- and many times children don’t want an explanation. They want assurance and calm.  They will observe you very carefully and imitate your way of coping with anxiety.  I wrote about some ways to create resilience through the music in the recent blog about Hurricane Sandy.  Keep comments simple and concrete.  You can find some excellent suggestions at http://www.naeyc.org/content/i-am-safe-and-secure-promoting-resilience-young-children.

Watch for the meaning behind the action.

As professionals we know that unusual behaviors in children might just be typical development or can indicate deeper issues.  Children who suddenly stop eating, or don’t want to leave the house or who cry at the sight of strangers might be acting on internal feelings of worry or concern.  Always try and look underneath the behaviors to see if there has been an impact from trauma.  I remember that during our time of crisis my children suddenly became really helpful around the house and overly lovey-dovey.  While it might seem nice, this ‘too good’ behavior was a manifestation of the bargaining that some young children try in order to negotiate with a world out of their control. ‘If I am really good, then things will go back to normal’. (Come to think of it, many try this every year for the benefit of Santa!)

It is okay to be happy.

As the grownup or the parent we sometimes need to look beyond our own need for grieving time and remember to ‘be in the moment’ with our small child. This means having fun and being momentarily care free.  This one was really hard for me back in 2001. I had to allow myself to imagine the larger picture of our lives and to try and foresee a time when the heavy work of grief would fade to the background.  Fortunately I can do that now. My children are grown and each of them is strong and resilient.  Music remains a huge part of our lives and the place where we often gather.

Routine, routine, routine.

Please go ahead and meet in your music groups. At this time it is more important than ever to be part of a community. Sing and play and dance. Leave time for silence if that is needed. Listen. Assure. Share resources with young parents. Take care of yourself in whatever way works for you.

Meredith and I are committed to making Raising Harmony a place that we can gather and share and perhaps grieve and question. We are so glad that you have become part of our community. Please let us know if there is any way we can further help.


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