How to Talk to Kids About a Tragedy
Children may not understand why bad things happen in the world today. It is best to provide them with information suited to their age and be the gatekeeper for any media exposure about the event.
There are tragic events that happen in the world that injure or kill people. Shootings, terrorist attacks or natural disasters are becoming more frequent. When events like this occur, parents face the dilemma of "how do I tell my kids?" It is important to address your child's concerns and remind them that they are safe and you are there to protect them. It is also important that you be the gateway to the information they are exposed to.
Where to Begin
Remain calm. Start by asking your child what they have already heard. Ask them if they have any questions about it. Older children may have more questions and ask for more details. Be truthful and direct with your answers. Let your child's questions and concerns guide the conversation. It is best to limit information to the scope of their questions. Share with them any actions the authorities are taking to prevent this type of event from happening again. Avoid placing blame on any cultural, racial or ethnic group.
Avoid Disturbing Details and Media Exposure
When sharing information with your children, do not include graphic details. The basic facts are usually enough. Track your child's exposure to media outlets and news breaks on television, radio and the web. Make sure they are getting information from you in the way best suited for their personality.
Older children may have access to news through social media on their mobile devices. In a 24-hour news cycle, disturbing images are looped over and over again. Stay up to date on what your kids are watching and speak to them in advance about what they could potentially see.
Tips for Talking to Your Child
Very young children – Children as young as 4 may likely hear about major crisis events. It is best that they hear about it from you, rather than other children or the media. Give the most basic details about the occurrence. Children of this age may not understand what makes this so different. Try to convey reassurance. Let them know that it is normal to be bothered by these events and you are there to support them. Try to maintain your normal household routine.
Elementary school children – Explain the details of the event. Let them know there are people helping and protecting. Talk to them about the jobs of police officers, first responders and government officials. Again, don't offer up disturbing details, and be sure to answer follow-up questions they may have. Encourage the expression of feelings about the event.
Teens – Older kids may want more information about the event. They may also want to know of recovery efforts and how affected people will move forward. Teens are more likely to have opinions about the causes of the event. They may have suggestions on how to avoid such events going forward. A good coping opportunity may be investigating how your family can help the victims and communities affected by the tragedy.
What to Watch for
There are signs that your child may not be dealing well coping with the event. These can include:
Emotional problems such as sadness, anxiety or fear.
- Behavioral changes such as acting immature, becoming impatient or clinging to a parent.
Physical complaints such as fatigue, headaches or generally feeling unwell.
Disrupted sleeping patterns may occur. This can include difficulty falling asleep or waking up, nightmares or sleep walking.
Determining if your child is reacting normal to a major even may be difficult. If you are concerned about how your child is affected, talk to their pediatrician or a mental health professional. Start the discussion early and maintain an open dialogue. Don't wait for the signs and symptoms of disturbance to start.
About the Author
Benny L. Lucas, MHA, BSN, RN, HACP, NEA-BC, is chief nursing officer and vice president for patient care services at Cone Health Behavioral Health Hospital.