Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Talking to Your Child About Tragedy

Talking To Your Child About Tragedy

Posted by Ali Goldfield, M.A., Therapy Stew (www.therapystew.com), on Saturday, September 21st 2013   

Ali is a psychotherapist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships. She provides assessment and treatment services to children, families and adults in her private practice.

It’s always difficult as a parent to know how much to share with your child and how much to shield them from the tragedies that happen in the world around them. While it may seem like a good idea, at times, to try and protect them from all the bad things, depending on their age, it’s not always possible. Children pick up information from other kids at school, from the television and from social media. Talking to your child about a tragedy can help her understand what’s happened and actually help them begin to process the events and feel a bit safer.

It’s a personal decision whether or not to talk to your kids or not. It also depends on their age, their level of maturity and how closely they are affected by the tragedy. Every parent knows best for their own child. If you’re struggling with how to start, here are some ways to help:

Let Your Child Be The Guide

Find out what questions or concerns your child might have. Let your child’s answers guide your discussion. Let your child know that you will always be there to listen and to answer them. Try to make your child feel comfortable asking questions and discussing what happened but don’t force your child to talk if they aren’t ready.

Tell The Truth – In Moderation

When talking to your child about a tragedy, tell the truth. You can focus on the basics but it’s not necessary to share all the unnecessary and gory details. Try no to exaggerate or speculate about what happened and avoid dwelling on the magnitude of the tragedy. Listen closely to your child for any misinformation, misconceptions or underlying fears. Take time to provide accurate information. Share your own thoughts and remind your child that you’re there for him. Your child’s age will play a major role in how he or she processes information about a tragedy.

Talk to Them at Their Level

Talk in a way that’s appropriate to their age and level of understanding. But don’t overload the child with too much information. Elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that the daily structures of their lives will not change. Middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school.  They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. High school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence and threats to safety in schools, community and society.  They may share concrete suggestions about how to prevent tragedies in society. They will also be more committed to doing something to help the victims and affected communities.

Be Ready to Have More Than One Conversation

Some information can be very confusing and hard to accept so asking the same question over and over may be a way for your child to find reassurance. Try to be consistent and reassuring, but don’t make unrealistic promises that nothing bad could ever happen.

Acknowledge and support your child’s concerns

Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs.  Let children talk about their feelings and help put them into perspective.  Even anger is okay, but children may need help and patience from adults to assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately. Let your child know that all his feelings, reactions and questions relating to the tragedy are important.

Limit Media Exposure

Don’t allow young children to repeatedly see or hear coverage of a tragedy. Even if your young child appears to be engrossed in play, he or she is likely aware of what you’re watching or listening to — and might become confused or upset. Older children might want to learn more about a tragedy by reading or watching TV. However, constant exposure to coverage of a tragedy can heighten anxiety.

Monitor your own stress level

Don’t ignore your own feelings of anxiety, grief, and anger. Talking to friends, family members or mental health counselors can help. It is okay to let your children know that you are sad, but that you believe things will get better. You will be better able to support your children if you can express your own emotions in a productive manner. Get appropriate sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Kids learn from watching the grown-ups in their lives and want to know how you respond to events.


We have all awoken to disasters before, whether natural, manmade, accidental and terrorist-induced and it’s inevitable that we will wake to them again in the future. What you say to your kids and how you say it will change as they get older but the one thing that shouldn’t change is your validation of your child’s feelings and the fact that you will always love them and do your best to keep them safe.

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