What do you say to kids when a space shuttle explodes during its launch? Or when 3,000 Americans die in the World Trade Center during a terrorist attack? Or when a hurricane floods a city and kills more than 1,000 people? What do you say when there's a shooting in a movie theater, or when 20 students and six adults are shot and killed at an elementary school?
It's inevitable kids will hear (or overhear) news of a tragedy from friends, another parent, or from a teacher. That's OK; you can't and shouldn't shield children from talking about the events in the world around them. You can and should, though, be proactive and be the primary source of information -- even when you may not know what to say.
It's important for parents to be in control the sources from whom their children get information about a tragedy. Parents have the opportunity to minimize kids' anxiety and fear about a bad situation if they are the ones who deliver the news. Curtail a child's exposure to media coverage about a tragic event -- and while that means turning off the TV, it also means controlling the information your children may see through other sources, such as social media. Repeated exposure to coverage of tragic events isn't healthy for any of us. Keep the lines of communication open with your child's teacher so you know that the information being shared in the classroom and the school is in tune with how your child is coping.
If these big conversations feel overwhelming, you're not alone. One of the biggest hang-ups adults have when confronted with talking about tragedies with children is what to focus on. (Another hang-up: where to begin.) The secret? There are two, actually. First, calm yourself before you begin talking to your kids. Manage your own emotions as much as you can before you talk to them; you're probably keenly aware that they're tuned in to adult feelings, and you won't hide any anxiety, worry, fear, sadness or anger from them. Take a moment, no matter how brief, to tend to yourself first, and don't be afraid to be honest with a child about your feelings -- it's OK to admit to a child that you're sad or that you don't have an answer [source: NASP].
And what about when it comes to that actual conversation? Just follow their lead. Let's talk about what that means and tips on how to do it, next.
While some kids may be comfortable enough to begin a conversation with you about news or rumors they may have heard, others may need you to start things off. If you're initiating, begin the conversation by asking if they've heard the tragedy (the shooting, the storm, whatever the tragedy may have been) has happened. If they haven't heard, use the opportunity to tell them briefly what has happened and that they are safe. If they have heard, ask what they've heard about it, and ask what, if anything, they may be concerned about. Listen to what they tell you, and respond as appropriate: Be straight-forward and clear up any misinformation (stick to the facts, and keep it brief), and address any specific concerns and fears with confidence (even if you're not exactly brimming with it).
Be prepared for kids to really focus in on the facts of the situation before they want to talk about how it makes them feel. Use simple, age-appropriate language in your answers. Preschoolers and kids in early elementary school, for example, may not understand what death means yet -- they may only need to hear a few sentences of very high-level information followed by an abundance of reassurance they are safe and that their lives are not affected (or, as it may be, how their lives will be affected). Kids in elementary and middle school may have a lot of questions, and want to know what is being done to proactively keep them safe. And while it may be appropriate for the oldest group, adolescents, to have the most information about a tragedy, teens may also be most likely to hide their fears and worries from you. Expect teenagers to be the most opinionated age group, and to perhaps have suggestions and ideas for safety improvements in the local community and beyond [source: NASP].
No matter what age, tell kids the truth, and be consistent. Allow them to talk about their feelings, and reassure them all of those feelings are OK -- even feelings such as guilt or anger. Help alleviate their fears by reassuring kids that they are safe, that they are loved, and that there are people keeping them safe.
What to Expect When Kids Cope With Tragedy
If you think you're repeating yourself in conversation with your kids after a tragedy has occurred, you probably are -- and that's OK. Asking the same questions again and again is a normal part of the process kids (and often, adults) go through as they work through the details of a tragic event and cope with their feelings. While some children may repeatedly ask the same questions, others may repeat the same statements about the tragedy. In response, stick with the emotionally healing power of these three things: Give succinct and consistent responses; be patient and supportive, and provide a feeling of security by being physically present. Some children may require little to no conversation or support while others will need much more. Encourage kids to talk; don't force them, but keep communication open. Young children, kids with special needs, and kids who have previously experienced trauma may prefer to work through the experience and their feelings with play, art or writing.
Some kids, especially those in late elementary school and middle school as well as teenagers, may benefit from taking an active role, too – engaging in a positive experience -- such as volunteering or sending kind words or donations where they're needed.
The National Association of School Psychologists recommends that parents (and guardians and any adults who spend time with kids) watch their kids' emotional state in the days and weeks after a tragic event has occurred. Signs of grief will vary from kid to kid and will differ depending on age, but often include temporary changes in appetite, sleep and behavior [source: NASP]. It's important to be flexible and accommodating to fears and feelings while being reasonable (routine is important for a kid's sense of security, for example, but nightmares may make it difficult to stick to a normal bedtime routine).
Note how well your child is coping as the days pass. Warning signs that a child is not coping in a healthy way include separation anxiety, nightmares, regressive behavior, bed wetting, irritability or aggression. Children also may have physical complaints such as a stomach ache or headache. They may not be able to stop thinking or talking about the event, and may develop fears of certain situations (such as going to school or traveling on an airplane) [source: Children's Hospital Los Angeles]. Work with your child's teacher and school counselor, a mental health professional or your pediatrician if you think your child may need help beyond your support.
Author's Note: How to Talk to Children About Tragedies in the News
I don't have children of my own, but as an adult, I've spent enough time with kids to know that I don't envy the parents out there who are psyching themselves up for those difficult conversation about things such as sexuality, bullying, or why your family doesn't need another kitten. There are difficult conversations because they are awkward, but then there are those you just don't like to imagine having because they are the kind you have when your child is frightened or anxious about recent tragedies in the news and doesn't want to go to school or go to sleep. When it seems you just don't know what to say to kidswhat I've learned from putting together this article is that you can't go wrong by sticking with the truth.
More Great Links
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. "Helping Children After A Disaster." 2008. (Jan. 11, 2013) http://www.aacap.org/cs/root/facts_for_families/helping_children_after_a_disaster
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. "Talking To Children About Terrorism And War." 2011. (Jan. 11, 2013) http://www.aacap.org/cs/root/facts_for_families/talking_to_children_about_terrorism_and_war
- CBS DFW. "How To Talk To your Children About Tragedy." 2012. (Jan. 11, 2013) http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2012/12/14/how-to-talk-to-your-children-about-tragedy/
- Children's Hospital Los Angeles. "Talking to Your Kids about the Colorado Shooting." 2012. (Jan. 11, 2013) http://www.chla.org/site/apps/nlnet/content2.aspx?c=ipINKTOAJsG&b=5207503&ct=12170755
- Mayo Clinic. "Helping children cope: Tips for talking about tragedy." 2012, (Jan. 11, 2013) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/helping-children-cope/MY02332
- Mental Health America. "Helping Children Cope with Tragedy Related Anxiety." (Jan. 11, 2013) http://www.nmha.org/go/information/get-info/coping-with-disaster/helping-children-handle-disaster-related-anxiety
- National Association of School Psychologists. "A National Tragedy: Helping Children Cope." 2001. (Jan. 11, 2013) http://www.nasponline.org/resources/crisis_safety/terror_general.aspx
- PBS Parents. "Talking with Kids About News." (Jan. 11, 2013) http://www.pbs.org/parents/talkingwithkids/news/index.html
- The Coloradoan. "How to talk to your kids about tragedy." 2012. (Jan. 11, 2013) http://www.coloradoan.com/article/20121214/NEWS01/312140031/How-talk-your-kids-about-tragedy