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Talking About Tragic Events

Talking to your child about tragic events

It is natural for parents to want to protect their children from the harsh realities of the world. However, children hear about things whether we want them to or not. Although you may think that your child is better off not knowing about incidents like the Boston Marathon Bombing, Hurricane Sandy, or the recent shootings across our nation, it was likely discussed on the school bus, the playground, or in a variety of other places and chances are, the information your child heard is at least a little bit inaccurate or exaggerated. Children rely on their parents to be safe and reliable sources of information. Your child needs to know what you think, and the best way to reassure him is to talk about it.

Tips for talking about things in the news

Where to start. With children of any age, the first thing you want to do is to find out what they know. How much a child needs to know depends on her age – preschoolers don’t need very many details but teens often do. However, take your cues from your child in deciding how much to discuss with her.

  • 5-8 year olds: It is entirely possible that your young child has not heard about an event, and there is no need to say too much if she hasn’t. Find out from her teacher if kids have been talking about the incident in school, and go from there. It is important to let children in this age group know that they are safe. Emphasize the distance between where you are and where the incident took place, and let them know that many adults are working to make sure it does not happen again anywhere.
  • 8-12 year olds: Your school-age child has most likely heard about and possibly even discussed the event in question at school. Ask her what she knows and if she wants to talk about it. Even if it has not directly affected them, children at this age might feel angry or upset. Again, let them know that they are safe and that many people are concerned and are doing their best to prevent something like this from happening again.
  • 12-18 year olds: Your tween or teen has definitely heard about a big event and has likely discussed it with peers and in school. Teenagers tend to be melodramatic and jump to assumptions, and it might be appropriate to have a broader, more general discussion. With something like a school shooting, you can talk about stereotypes, how to treat peers, or how to recognize and help troubled teens; and in the case of a natural disaster, you can talk about politics, organizations that help people, and different parts of the country or the world. Your child is never too old to reassure them that they are safe and remind them that there are people working to prevent events like this from ever happening again.

Turn off the TV. We know that children are affected by what they see and hear in the media, and we also know that the media does not let go of a major event. There comes a point when your child and even you have seen and heard it enough. Filter what your child is exposed to, at least when he is around you. It’s OK to turn off even the news if you think it is inappropriate for your child. Although children should hear and talk about current events, try to discuss them with him, and help him think about and understand them. Sometimes, children’s magazines or TV shows do a good job of this.

Maintain a sense of normalcy. Try to maintain regular schedules for mealtimes and bedtime and continue to follow your normal school routine. This will reassure your child that nothing has changed in your household and provide a solid foundation of recovery when the media frenzy surrounding the event is over.

Look for signs of stress. Even if your child does not want to talk about it, he may be affected by a tragic, recent event that is being talked about. Common reactions to these kinds of events in young children may include clinginess, tearfulness, bed-wetting, nightmares or fear of the dark, indifference, thumb sucking or nail biting, or trouble in school. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, adolescents are generally more affected by tragic events, and may be more tired and irritable and possibly even try new and harmful things like alcohol or drugs. Talk to your child’s school and pediatrician if you see any of these things and are concerned.

Manage your stress levels. Remember that tragic events may also cause stress, anxiety and difficult emotions in adults. Reaching out to friends and family to talk through these feelings are normal. However, remember your child is always listening and you want to make sure what you say and how you say it does not cause additional anxiety, worry and/or distress for your child. Find healthy outlets to channel your feelings about the event for example, volunteering for an organization in need, journaling your feelings, and/or do something you enjoy in order to stay positive and productive.

Keep the lines of communication open. The most important thing you can do for a child of any age is to let her know that she can come to you with any questions. However, be careful how you present information, and do not give any more details than you think she can handle. Questions and concerns may linger and surface much later, so do not be surprised if your child at first seems disinterested in the topic because she may not process it or be ready to talk about it right away. No matter how old your child is, she needs you, especially when the world around her is unsettled. If you are feeling insecure, talk to another adult and calm yourself so your child does not pick up on your concern.

Protect their idealism. Although it is important for your child to be aware of what is going on in the world, certain tragic events promote feelings of helplessness among children of all ages. Find ways to let your child know that the world is not a terrible place. Tell them about the people who are helping, such as emergency workers and volunteers. Talk about what they can do to help, such as fundraising, finding pen pals, or even organizing a project in your community to help keep it safe. Also discuss stereotypes and prejudice, because many times these issues arise from world events and children learn tolerance and respect for diversity from adults.

For more information please visit the following resources:

Massachusetts Executive Office of Education has compiled a list of helpful resources to talk with children about the recent tragic events including the Boston Marathon Bombings.

PBS Parent Guide "Helping Our Children Feel Safe"

AAP Resources to Help Parents, Children, and Other Cope in the Aftermath of School Shootings

SAMHSA's Coping with Violence and Traumatic Events Web site: Tips for talking to children of all ages, information on coping with grief, mass violence and school shootings.

National Association of School Psychologists:

Coping With Crisis: Tips for Parents and Educators

Coping with Crisis—Helping Children With Special Needs

Child Witness to Violence Project: Recognizing and helping children who have been exposed to violence.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network: Information and resources for parents and caregivers who have children exposed to violence, abuse and/or traumatic stress.


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