How to Talk to Children About Tragedies in the News

Constructive Conversation

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.