How to Talk to Kids About Tragedy Without Saying Too Much

When tragedies occur, especially those involving children, they garner an immense amount of attention from the media and spark discussions that could easily be overheard by children. As a result, it’s very important that parents have an idea of how to approach the subject with their children to avoid anxiety and stress that can deeply affect the way a child views the world. Striking a balance between providing kids with the answers and explanations they’re seeking without giving them more information than they can comfortably handle isn’t always easy, but doing so can help your child grasp at least the basic facts without inspiring deep-seated fears or anxiety issues.

Keep Details to a Minimum

Depending on her age, your child may ask questions in order to obtain more detailed information about a tragic event, or may just be seeking a confirmation that even though such an event has occurred they are still safe. In either case, it’s best to make sure that the information you pass along is honest, if a bit vague and lacking in gory details. Children don’t need to know the horrific details of a situation, just that there has been a tragedy and that the adults in their lives are doing everything in their power to ensure that they’re safe from such events.

Avoid Sensational News Reports

While the evening news may be a source of information for adults, it can also be the stuff of nightmares for young children. Photographs of devastated areas or crime scenes, along with speculation regarding motives or possible causes of an event provide your child with nothing he needs, but plenty of fodder for his already vivid imagination. Whenever possible, it’s best to keep your kids’ exposure to sensational news coverage of a tragedy to a minimum or enforce a media blackout.

Answer Questions Honestly

Encourage your children to ask you any questions that they may have, but make sure that you’re not prompting those questions and inadvertently giving them new things to worry about. Your child’s imagination is rich and fertile, making it very easy for scary new ideas to take root and become problematic. Guiding the conversation and prompting questions can be counterproductive because it can bring up concepts and points that he wasn’t even considering before. Don’t lie or evade the truth when you’re questioned directly, but try not to introduce new concerns.

Keep the Conversations Age-Appropriate

For older children, knowing what happened and why is more important than it is for younger children, who are essentially self-involved at earlier stages of development and typically only need confirmation that they are being protected. It’s just as important to avoid talking to your older child as if he were too young to fully understand the situation as it is to avoid giving your young child too much information to comfortably deal with. Tailoring your responses to the developmental and maturity level of your child is the best way to make sure that he’s getting what he needs out of the conversation without being overloaded with details he’s too young to process.

Offer Reassurance and Comfort

Whether you have an anxious preschooler or a tween who’s trying to assert her independence, your child will need to be comforted and reassured that every possible effort is being made to ensure their safety. Older children who are more capable of grasping the concept of tragic situations can also benefit from an explanation about how adults and people in positions of power are making the effort to learn from a tragedy, ensuring that another one like it doesn’t occur. Be sure that you let your children know that it’s okay to feel their emotions and to acknowledge them, and that you offer them comfort.

Determine How Much They Already Know

Before approaching a serious conversation about a tragic event, especially a violent one, it’s best to determine how much your child actually knows. If the version of events that she’s heard came from a classmate or peer, there’s a fairly good chance that there are at least some inaccuracies that you’ll need to correct. Knowing which angle to approach the conversation from will require you to know what you’re dealing with, so encourage kids to tell you what they think happened before beginning any explanations.

Be Prepared to Revisit the Conversation

Some children may feel reassured and comforted after one conversation on the subject of a tragedy, while others need to be periodically reminded that they’re being protected to the best of everyone’s abilities. Treating a conversation about devastating national or local events as a floating dialogue that can be reopened at any moment can help your child understand that he can come to you when he’s feeling scared or anxious, and that you’ll try to help him in any way that you can.

While it’s absolutely normal for kids to feel some grief, fear or anxiety after a tragic event, it’s important to keep an eye on their behavior afterward. Significant changes in personality or mood, difficulty sleeping or other changes that don’t seem to be reversing with time may need to be addressed by a healthcare professional, who can help you to further assist your child in processing his feelings.

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