Talking to Children about Tragedy

Published on

By Susan Heckler

We all watch the nightly news with a feeling of dread, especially if our children are within ear shot. There is a fine line of what we can do to protect them from the evils of the world and how we can prepare them to deal with it in a healthy way. As a parent, it is natural for you to try and insulate your child from the negatives in life. Unfortunately, with social media and the digital age we live in, it is nearly impossible unless you moved off the grid. It is a balance to prepare your child for real life without instilling fear of it. Explaining any tragedy in terms that a young child will comprehend is difficult, especially when it is an extreme like what transpired in Orlando. Can you really explain the irrational rationally? Any discussion you have needs to be age appropriate. You can’t get into the history of terrorism, gun control, sexual preferences and politics with a preschooler. Actually, The American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend avoiding the topic with children until they reach a certain age – around 8, but again, it depends on the child. Prior to this age, children struggle to process it. When to speak to them is almost as important as what you say. Find times when conversation is conducive, such as when riding in the car or before dinner. It is best if you start the conversation so you are prepared for it and don’t interrupt them- allow them to express their ideas and understanding before you respond. Of course, always reinforce that you are there for them to provide safety, comfort and support. A hug can’t hurt. With young children; preschool to kindergarten, its recommended parents keep their stories simple, and reinforcing of the parents’ beliefs. Some recommend that an analogy to a movie or cartoon that the child can relate to may help. Try to focus on the positives, such as the heroes of the story. Conceivably, parents want their children to know that a bad man hurt people or to know that someone with a serious illness felt angry and hurt people. Elementary school kids are very inquisitive and will ask many more interrogative questions. As a parent, you need to decide how much you want to share. It is suggested to avoid children from seeing pictures or the news. These images will stick with children longer than words. Once your child is a “tween”, chances are they heard about it before you did. With their smart phones in hand, the world is at their fingertips. With them, it may be better to listen to them, let them vent their fears and anxieties and then respond. It is normal to experience a wide range of emotions, including fearfulness, shock, anger, grief and anxiety. You may notice your child’s behaviors responding to the event…trouble sleeping, difficulty with concentrating on school work or changes in appetite. This is normal for everyone and should begin to disappear in a few months. Unfortunately, we all need to stress the ability to communicate at all times. Be approachable to all subjects, it is okay to show your own vulnerability and sadness when tragedy occurs, but you need to show your child that you are in control of yourself and manage such events emotionally. It is okay to be upset and it is okay to reach out for help. Your child should have their phone with them when they are not with you. You need to remain reachable at all times. Your child needs to know that if something doesn’t feel right, they should bring it to the attention of an adult. This is a good time to reassure them that all safety measures are taken by you and their school to ensure their well-being. When your child walks away from the conversation, they should have the feeling that life is good, people are good and that events like these are terrible but rare. The conversation can even expand into how we can all make the world a better place.