How to Talk to Children About Tragedies in the News

What to Expect When Kids Cope With Tragedy

It may take a child some time to process the information you’re giving them. Patience and reassurance are crucial during these conversations.
It may take a child some time to process the information you’re giving them. Patience and reassurance are crucial during these conversations.

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.

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More Great Links


  • American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. "Helping Children After A Disaster." 2008. (Jan. 11, 2013)
  • American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. "Talking To Children About Terrorism And War." 2011. (Jan. 11, 2013)
  • CBS DFW. "How To Talk To your Children About Tragedy." 2012. (Jan. 11, 2013)
  • Children's Hospital Los Angeles. "Talking to Your Kids about the Colorado Shooting." 2012. (Jan. 11, 2013)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Helping children cope: Tips for talking about tragedy." 2012, (Jan. 11, 2013)
  • Mental Health America. "Helping Children Cope with Tragedy Related Anxiety." (Jan. 11, 2013)
  • National Association of School Psychologists. "A National Tragedy: Helping Children Cope." 2001. (Jan. 11, 2013)
  • PBS Parents. "Talking with Kids About News." (Jan. 11, 2013)
  • The Coloradoan. "How to talk to your kids about tragedy." 2012. (Jan. 11, 2013)