How to Talk to Children About Tragic Events

In the wake of a tragedy, our hearts break for the victims and their families but as parents we also begin to think about how this might affect our own children. Here are some tips to help you talk to your children and help them cope.

Originally Published in Colorado Parent Magazine.

When tragic events happen, such as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, our emotions race. As parents, our hearts break for the victims and their families but we also begin to think about how this might affect our own children.

Try as we might to protect our kids from violence like this, they will likely see the news or hear about the events and have questions and fears. They will look to parents for answers at a time when we are trying to make sense of this ourselves.

You can help reduce children’s fears and worries by how you react, what you say and how you share the information. The suggestions below, geared for children ages 6 and up, will help guide you in talking to your kids about tragic events. Remember, each child is different, so use your best judgment in choosing what to say and how to talk to your own child.

• Turn off the Television. As much as is possible, do not let your children watch footage about the tragedy. Imagery is the first language of the brain and images of the shooting will cause longer lasting anxiety related to the event.

• Let your child hear the news from you. With all of the media attention, your child is bound to hear something about tragic events through TV or the Internet. Friends and other kids may also talk about it and disturbing news may be harder to hear this way. Talk to your children before they hear the news elsewhere.

• Start with the end of the story. Reassure children that the event is over. This will reduce anxiety as you are sharing the news.

• Reassure them that they are safe. Tell them that something bad has happened in another area, but it is over and they are safe. When situations like this happen, children need to know that they are removed from the event. If the tragedy happened near your home, do not focus on that. It will only increase anxiety and future fears. Help your child feel that there is some distance between them and the tragedy.

• Share with them that the person who did this bad thing was not well. I tell my children that this person most likely had a rare disease in the mind and was not able to think clearly. Children need to know that this is not a common behavior. The National PTA also suggests reassuring children that, while there are people who do things that are hard to understand, for the vast majority of the time, we are safe.

• If it’s true, let your child know that the police have caught the suspect. Children feel more secure knowing that the bad guy was caught and cannot hurt them. In the case that a suspect has not been caught, do not lie but do not focus on that information. Instead reassure children that police, the government and many other people are working very hard to be sure we are safe.

• Be conservative with details. Any details you may share depends on your child’s age. Use your best judgment and share as little information as possible about the violence and of course, do not share graphic descriptions.

Grief and Bereavement Support - Child Counseling ColoradoChildren will most likely be sad and maybe fearful when initially hearing tragic news. Give them time to talk about how they feel and to process the information. Answer their questions as honestly as you can in age-appropriate language.

As the days go on, be available to listen. Many children will process the information and then will want to talk more later on. Let them know that you are available to talk about the event as much as they need, whenever they need. Check in with them over the coming weeks and let them know it helps to talk.

Here are some other tips for the weeks to come:

• Children naturally process and come to terms with difficult information through play and creativity. After hearing the news of the movie theater shooting in Aurora, my children began playing on their own and started acting out a play involving a child who needed to be rescued. Later, my youngest daughter wanted to draw images that were soothing and calming for her.

• Taking action or helping in times of crisis is a way for children to manage their feelings and is a meaningful way to give back and help others. For instance, make a card for the families who have lost a loved one. In addition to sending a caring message to the families this is also a way to help your child process their feelings and learn empathy. Brainstorm with your child other ways that you might be able to help.

• Comfort your child and give them extra love and TLC. Don’t be surprised if your child is more clingy, insecure, worried, fearful or irritable for the next few days or even weeks. These are all natural reactions to a tragedy.

• Structure and schedule helps children feel secure. Talk about the plans for the day and give your child activities to do.

• Make sure your child does not watch the news. Disturbing images and reports tend to increase anxiety. Images of tragedies are often harder to forget than verbal descriptions and can cause longer lasting fears.

• Monitor your child over the coming weeks. If he or she remains excessively anxious or fears increase after two weeks to a month have passed, you may want to seek professional help.

Anya Beebe MA, LPC is a licensed professional counselor, art therapist, certified COPE parent trainer and mother of two.

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