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Talking to Children About Tragic Events

October 4, 2017



man with arm around young boy

When tragedy occurs, parents face overwhelming and often difficult tasks: How do you explain this type of event to your children? How do you help them feel safe when you may feel helpless yourself? How much should you tell them?

In search of some answers, we reached out to Samantha Bookman, a licensed marriage and family therapist, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente Woodland Hills Medical Center in Southern California.

Here are some of her ideas:

For young children, don’t assume children want, need, or can handle the whole truth just because they have a question or two.

Give children short, simple answers to the exact question they ask. Avoid giving information they don’t need. Don’t feel pressured to give them the entire socio-political background regarding the situation. It’s best to stay simple and wait and see if children want more information. If they appear satisfied with the information you gave them, you have said plenty.

Only give information that is appropriate for the youngest member of the family or group.

If you have a 5- and 8-year-old, only give information they both can handle. It’s okay, and may be necessary, to interrupt and stop an older child if they are asking questions that will upset the younger child. Gently let them know you’ll talk together later.

For older kids and teens, don’t try to talk them out of being angry or afraid.

It won’t work and they’ll end up feeling like you don’t understand and that they can’t come to you with feelings.

Focus on the fact that the majority of the time, in most places and cities around the world, we are safe.

For more mature young people, remind them that it’s okay to be scared and to carry on with our lives. There is risk in our lives every day. We drive in cars. We live along fault lines. Bad things could happen, but usually, we aren’t reminded of that, and we forget about it so that we can live our lives happily. And guess what? We are almost always just fine.

Children’s exposure to news should always be limited.

For teens on social media, this is nearly impossible, but at the very least, you can view things together so you can help them sort through fact and fiction, etc. We can use this as an opportunity to talk with our teens about filtering social media and self-care. For example, if somebody frequently posts things that are upsetting or scary, we could talk with our teen about why temporarily (or permanently) hiding that person’s posts might be a great way to take care of themselves.

The main way children hear about these events is from listening to adults. Remember: They are always listening, even when they don’t seem to be paying attention. Be highly vigilant about what adult conversations are happening within earshot.

It is imperative parents not show anxiety about these events to their kids.

Children and teens have an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain behind the forehead) which is what lets us use reason to calm our fears.

Yes, we are all afraid on some level, but we can remind ourselves of the reasons we are safe most of the time. Children and teens don’t yet have nearly as much capacity to do this. Therefore, the result of scary information can be overwhelming and debilitating.

If your kids are really affected by the events, help them find a way to contribute something positive. Pick an organization that is offering aid and think of ways for your child to participate. Young kids can make a card to send to victims’ families. Kids and teens could have a bake sale to raise money or contribute money earned from babysitting to an organization dedicated to helping those affected by tragedy.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you or your children are struggling with fear.

Asking for help is a brave step.

Letting high levels of anxiety go untreated can lead to behavioral, emotional, health and academic problems. Numerous healthy activities can help reduce stress and get you back on track: exercise; getting enough sleep; practicing relaxation; and talking to someone, whether it is a close friend, a supportive family member, a spiritual advisor, or a trained therapist.