10 Tips for Talking to Kids About Tragic Events

talk to your kids about tragic events

A Guide to Helping Children Navigate Tragic Events in a Healthy Way

In the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, it is harder and harder to protect children from the harsh realities of our world. Whether it’s a mass shooting, war, terrorist attack, or natural disaster in the news, technology has made kids more aware of tragic world events and given them access to unfiltered information and images. 

Kids need a trusted adult to help them make sense of what they see. According to Educators for Social Responsibility, children four year old and older can benefit from discussing tragic events with trusted adults. But how do you have those difficult conversations? What answers can we provide children that provide comfort and also help them understand the tragedy itself?

Here are 10 pointers to help guide you in those difficult conversations.

1: Build Your Kids’ Coping Skills Proactively

One of the most important skills you can teach your kids is that of resilience: the ability to recover after stressful events. Working to help your child build coping skills in advance of an emergency situation or tragedy can be a huge help when it comes time for your child to process their feelings and carry on in the face of tragedy.

2: Make a Habit of Discussing Current Events With Older Kids Before Tragedy Occurs

Lay the groundwork for difficult conversations by normalizing discussions surrounding current events. Watch the news with your children, or bring up current events regularly. Regular talks will make your kids comfortable talking about world events while also modeling for them how you make sense of current events. That way, when something tragic occurs, you already have an established routine and initiating a discussion will not add to the strangeness of the tragic event.

3: Avoid Burdening Children With Grown-up Fears and Concerns

Be careful about how you talk about tragic events while your children are listening. Children look to adults for a sense of stability and model their reactions after those of adults. However, children are less equipped to process the complex information that accompanies tragic events. Unable to fully understand the tragic event on their own, children can grow generally anxious when faced with a situation that seems to send the grown-ups in their lives into a panic. Similarly, be mindful about what images your children see on the news, and limit their exposure to graphic or unsettling images.

4: Don’t Wait for Your Kids to Raise the Topic

When tragedy occurs, children need factual information from a trusted adult whether or not they ask for it directly. Without an explanation for tragedy that makes sense to them, children will, like adults, fill in the gaps with speculation. Save your children from having their imaginations fill in scary details by initiating the conversation as soon as your child becomes aware of the event.

5: Start by Asking Questions and Listening

Meet children where they are by finding out what they know and what questions they have. It can be overwhelming for young children to get the adult version of events before they are ready to handle some of the details. It’s better to let your children guide the conversation and respond to their questions in a reassuring way.

You can open the conversation with questions like:

  • “Have you heard anything about …”
  • “How do you feel about the news?” 
  • “What are you or your friends thinking and saying about the event?”

6: Encourage Kids to Share Their Feelings 

As you listen to your children describe what they know and ask questions, gently correct misunderstandings and provide brief, reassuring answers. Stop regularly to ask your children how they feel about what they are learning. That way you can help your children identify and process their feelings and emotions surrounding tragic events.

7: Provide Succinct, Comforting Answers and Context

Children depend on adults to put the magnitude of tragic events into context. Though it’s natural to want to explain away horrible events to provide children with closure, or to try to empathize with children’s fears by displaying fear yourself, doing so may cause more harm than good. 

Instead, help children contextualize tragedy by helping them focus on the good. You can tell children you don’t know why the tragic event occurred if you truly do not, and provide reassurance by reminding children that the vast majority of people are good people who do not do terrible things. As Mr. Rogers famously said, “look for the helpers.” Help your kids focus on how communities come together and support each other after tragedy.

8: If Appropriate, Provide Your Child With a Way to Help

Sometimes, kids don’t want to look for the helpers—they want to help themselves. If appropriate (depending on the type of tragedy), you can direct that compassionate energy towards action, no matter how small. Younger children can write or decorate cards for those affected, for example. Teens might look to take an even more active role, potentially participating in blood drives, donation collections, or political advocacy. 

9: If You Are Part of an Emergency Situation or Tragic Event, Set Your Child up to Adapt

It’s one thing to see tragedy unfold on the news; it’s quite another to experience tragedy firsthand. If you or your child are in the midst of an emergency, it can be helpful to keep at least one part of your child’s daily routine the same if possible. Just as important: remember to take care of yourself so you can take care of others. 

The Red Cross has numerous resources on guiding your children through emergency situations, available in multiple languages and for all age groups. 

10: Watch for Signs of Anxiety

Traumatic events can be overwhelming for children to process. It’s normal for children to worry about and even develop some anxiety about tragic world events, but when worry becomes excessive anxiety, it’s time to consult a professional. Since children are not generally self-aware enough to identify and alert you to signs of overwhelming anxiety, it helps to watch for physical and behavioral symptoms of anxiety in children.

Physical and Behavioral Symptoms of Anxiety:

  • Stomach aches
  • Nightmares or trouble sleeping
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Separation anxiety
  • Becoming withdrawn
  • Excessive worry about becoming a victim
  • Sudden refusal to attend school

For tips about how much to tell children of different ages and signs that a child isn’t coping well, check out this guide by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

More Resources

 

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