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10 tips for talking to kids about tragedy


Violence, natural disasters and hate crimes fill the nightly news and social media feeds. Much as parents may want to shield their children from such tragedies, it’s not always possible.

Instant access to news from every corner of the globe may leave children believing that horrible things happen everywhere, all the time. That can have a negative effect on their sense of security and well-being.

Because children’s brains are still developing, they are more sensitive to the unexpected acts of violence taking place in our world. They need adults to help them make sense of what they are learning and reassure them of their safety.

Children already know more than adults think they do when it comes to tragic events, so it’s important to know how to talk about such incidents with them. Here are 10 tips for how to approach the topic with them.

  1. The conversations should arise naturally, as a response to a child’s questions or comments. As the adult, you should welcome their thoughts and inquiries, and show that you are open to talking about their concerns. Let them know their feelings are normal. Children who don’t have a trusted adult to help them process the information they are getting may attach their own personal meaning to it, which can be distorted or misguided.
  1. When such conversations come up, listen to what the child is saying and tailor the discussion to their level of understanding, interest or distress. Don’t ever force a conversation. Let the child lead the discussion. Validate his or her feelings, and gently correct any misinformation.
  1. Ask questions such as “What do you know?” and “What questions do you have?” Then, adjust your responses accordingly.
  1. Understand that children younger than 7-9 years of age usually don’t fully comprehend the finality of death. They may see video game characters come back to life after being killed and apply that to other situations.
  1. Avoid adding unnecessary information to what the child already knows, especially when it comes to graphic images or details.
  1. Focus on those who are helping to make the traumatic situations better, such as government officials, the police, emergency responders, medical professionals and volunteers.
  1. Use difficult events as an opportunity to foster empathy for those involved. Talk about the positive things you as a family do to be kind to others and help those in need. When the tragedies result from people hurting each other because of their differences, talk about healthier ways to handle emotions. Send a message of inclusion and kindness.
  1. Remember that children will learn the most from watching and listening to you. How you respond to and talk about such events will set an example for them, even if you aren’t talking directly with them. Be mindful of what you discuss and how you talk about it when they are present. Avoid heated political discussions, sensationalized news or discussions of conspiracy theories when young eyes and ears are around.
  1. Avoid stereotyping groups of people by race, nationality, or religion. Use negative events as opportunities to teach tolerance and explain prejudice. Model the behaviors you want them to replicate.
  1. If your child doesn’t want to go to school after hearing about a shooting on television, reassure them that their school is safe. Don’t allow them to stay home. That will only make things worse by reinforcing the idea that they do have something to be fearful of.

In cases where a child becomes paranoid, fearful or intensely affected by tragic news, it may be beneficial to seek out counseling or therapy. Younger children may demonstrate this need by regressing with developmental milestones such as toilet training or sleeping through the night. They may appear more anxious and worried or have nightmares. Older children may become overly fixated on following the details of certain events. They may need to take a break or detach so it doesn’t consume them. In some cases, a child may become aggressive or withdraw as a way to deal with his or her feelings.

Above all, when processing news of tragic events, children need a message of safety and security.

 

Salman Majeed, M.D., is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

 

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