A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Tips for talking to kids about tragedies

Illustration - Parent talking to kid

An act of terrorism. A horrific natural disaster.

No matter what it is, when tragedy strikes or mass violence occurs, fear and confusion are natural reactions.

If you have questions and concerns, so will your kids. But how do you talk to them about tragic events when you’re scared and don’t have all the answers?

Your approach depends on your child’s age and maturity level, said Patricia Ellis, Ph.D., a Marshfield Clinic psychologist.

“Be honest about what happened,” she said. “Don’t be evasive. That can increase anxiety.”

Limit or supervise exposure to news about the event

It’s okay for young children to learn and hear about tragic events, but hold back on how much you let them read or watch to reduce fear and anxiety.

“Help them understand that what you see on the news isn’t what’s going on everywhere,” Ellis said.

Older school age kids should watch news about tragedies with adult supervision. Avoid showing them graphic images of the event.

Most teens can watch news and read about tragedies without supervision, but even for mature viewers, watching events over and over isn’t productive, Ellis said.

Redirect their attention (and yours) to positive, productive activities and seek out news stories about good things happening in the world after a tragedy.

Explain on their level

The younger the child, the simpler the explanation of the tragedy should be.

“It’s usually enough to tell very young children that angry people sometimes do bad and dangerous things,” Ellis said.

Ask school age kids to explain what happened in their words and clear up any misconceptions they have about the event.

Direct teens to reliable sources of information that explain the event in simple terms. Be prepared to discuss terrorism, freedom, tolerance and politics afterward.

“Keeping an open dialogue with adults strengthens their resiliency,” Ellis said.

If you don’t know the answer or don’t know how to respond appropriately to one of their questions, it’s okay to let them know you need to find more information or need to think about your answer.

Remind children of safety measures

Children may be scared mass violence will happen in their school or community after hearing about a tragic event.

“Tell them about the good people doing their best to keep them safe if something bad happens,” Ellis said.

Point out to younger kids that police, firefighters and rescue teams respond to the incidents. Let your kids know those professionals are there to help them.

Tell older children that safety officials learn how to provide better protection by studying the event. Use statistics to show teens that people can travel and attend events safely.

“There’s a lot of protection in this country,” she said.

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