Talking With Children About Tragic Events

talking about tragic eventsTragic and senseless events such as the one in Charleston, South Carolina can make us feel vulnerable and helpless. For those who have children or who work with children, the emotional reactions can be even greater, especially when children are involved in the event. Even if only viewing such events from a distance, children want to understand what happened and why. What’s the responsibility of an adult to help children understand events like this?

Everyone, both children and adults, responds to tragic events differently. Some people are more affected than others. Some people show emotional responses while others may be more reserved about expressing their feelings. People cope differently, and it’s important to act accordingly based on how your family processes difficult situations. Here are some tips that may be helpful when you are thinking about ways to explain tragic events to your child.

  • Limit exposure to news coverage of disturbing events.

The repetitive media coverage of the same scene may confuse some younger children that tragic events are happening over and over again. Closely monitor what your child is seeing on TV and reading in magazines and in the newspaper. Turn off the TV if it is negatively affecting your family. Kids under 6 should see little or none of the TV coverage.

  • Talk to your child and provide simple, accurate information.

Don’t over-share about the traumatic events, but explain in an age-appropriate way what happened. If your child asks questions that you don’t know how to answer, it’s perfectly appropriate to say, “I don’t know” or “What do you think?” Asking your child’s opinions or thoughts may also help you find and clarify any misconceptions.

  • Reassure your child, but don’t lie.

If your child is concerned about his/her safety, you can tell him/her, “We are doing our best to keep everyone safe.” However, don’t pretend that tragic events will never happen. Instead, tell your child that these events are very rare. If it seems appropriate, you may brainstorm with your child what to do in a crisis. Don’t overly focus on a particular event, especially if the event is scaring your child. You can include other less stressful situations and more general tips on emergency procedures for injuries and fire safety.  It’s important to stress the fact that tragic events are very rare, and being prepared doesn’t mean that we are worried that bad things will happen to us.

  • Acknowledge his/her feelings.

“I can see it makes you sad to think about all the people who were hurt by this event. I’m sad too.” This helps clarify everyone’s feelings and opens up conversation. However, don’t assume that your child is feeling the same way that you are. Follow your child’s lead and comment based on what you observe or hear from your child.

  • Maintain regular routines and provide enough opportunity to play.

Make sure that regular routines such as meal time and bed time are (as much as possible) the same as usual, so that your child feels secure. Play helps your child to express feelings and cope with stress, although you might not see it directly.

Finally, in order to respond to your child appropriately, you also need to take care of yourself. Make sure to get enough rest and spend time doing something you all enjoy.

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