Talking With Kids About Tragedy

These days it seems like every time we turn around there is another tragedy.  Something that seems senseless.  Something that we, even as adults, have a hard time comprehending or understanding ourselves. 

cuttingWhen these events occur, it’s important to take some time to talk to our children about what’s happening.  Why?  Because they are going to hear about it.  And your best explanation of a difficult situation is better than no explanation at all.  Here are five tips to help get your conversation started:

Consider their developmental level.  Young children don’t necessarily need to know about every tragedy.  They are happy and carefree and we can and should keep them that way as long as possible.  Preschoolers up to kindergarteners (and even first graders) can be shielded from hearing about most situations.  But school aged children are VERY likely to hear about tragedies from their peers, teachers, or the media so as a parent it’s important to talk to your kids yourself.  When you do talk to your children, talk to them using vocabulary that they understand and using examples that are appropriate to their developmental level.

Be honest.  My thinking has always been that I would rather my children hear about something difficult from me first than on the playground from one of their friends.  If armed with accurate information from their parents, children are better able to process truth (and fiction) presented by their peers.  I also want my children to know that I will not lie to them, even when the topic is scary.  Stay calm when you’re talking with your kids and using your own words say something like: “A sad thing happened that I wanted to talk with you about.  There was an explosion in Boston while people were running in a race, the Boston Marathon.  A bomb caused the explosion.  Some people were injured and sadly some people died.  There were also a lot of people there who were not hurt and who helped those who did get injured.  I don’t know why this happened or who put the bomb there but the police are investigating it and over time we will know more.  I wanted to tell you about it so that you would know what was going on and could ask me any questions that you have.  I may not have the answers,but it’s always important to me to be honest with you even about difficult things.” 

Reassure them.  Kids need reassurance when hearing about difficult subjects.  They have questions.  Is everyone we know safe?  Is anything going to change for me because of this?  Can this happen to me?  Reassure them the best that you can using truthful answers that fit your child and your personal situation.  Children are resilient and much more likely to process the event and move forward if they are reassured. 

Limit television viewing.  One of the best things you can do for your child (and yourself) is to limit television news related to the tragedy.  Television news can be pretty scary and graphic, and you have no control over what’s being shown to your children.  As you know, once they see something on television it can’t be unseen.  On the other hand, if there is a newspaper article or internet post you think would be suitable to share with your child then take some time to read it with them and then talk about it.  It’s not that kids shouldn’t know the news surrounding this event, it’s that they shouldn’t be consumed by it in the way that television news has a way of doing.

Decide how you can help.  When kids learn about tragedy, they often want to do something to make it better.  There are always helpers on the front lines, but kids want to do something to help too.  Ask your kids what they would like to do and guide them based on their age and developmental level.  Some ideas include:  praying for the victims and their families, making a donation, or sending a letter or picture.  Sadly we can’t change what has happened.  But we can and should help however we are able.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” — Fred Rogers

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