Should You Talk to Young Children about Tragic Events?

When it comes to discussing tragedy with young children, honesty might not always be the best policy, a CHOC Children’s psychologist says.

“Shielding them from any exposure should always be the first effort,” Dr. Mery Taylor says. “Children can be unpredictable about how they may respond to information, and even events far away can trigger a stress response.”

Given the potential short- and long-term consequences of coping with a trauma, parents should consider the proximity of the event and whether the child truly must know about specific current events.

But sometimes shielding children from tragic events can be difficult. Dr. Taylor recommends that parents who are considering discussing a tragedy or trauma with a child consider some other factors:

  • Proximity of the event: When a tragedy occurs close to home, it may be more difficult to control what the child might see or hear. And even if unaware, children still might sense tension and anxiety from adults around them.
  • Your partner: Discuss together your concerns and plans to ensure consideration of the different angles, but also so that you both are on the same page and presenting a consistent message. You may want to involve grandparents or caregivers to ensure that your desired approach is followed by those involved in your child’s care.
  • Siblings and older playmates: If your young child is around much older children, consider the likelihood that she may hear something frightening. In these cases, it may be helpful to inoculate her by going ahead and giving her some minimal information while keeping her developmental age in mind. You can always go back and answer more questions as they come. It is not recommended to ask an older child (8 to 12 years old) to not talk about the event with their younger sibling. This would likely only pique their curiosity.
  • Your child’s personality: All children are different. You know your child best. Is she likely to be scared by tragic new more than most children? Or is she the kid who would likely go explain the event to her class? Let her personality help guide your decision.
  • Media: School, other children, television, computers and smartphones may lead to your children knowing more that you think. Be sure to ask about their day; let them know you are there for them; and notice changes in behavior or mood that might be an indication that they may have heard something that doesn’t make sense in their world.

Should parents opt to discuss tragic events with children, or should the child already be aware of the circumstances, Mental Health America offers ways parents can talk to their children about tragedy-related anxiety and help them cope:

Quick tips for parents

  • Children need comforting and frequent reassurance of their safety.
  • Let your child lead the discussion and only answer questions that they ask.
  • Be honest and open about the tragedy or disaster using age-appropriate language. This may take the form of very simple and concise language.
  • Encourage children to express their feelings through talking, drawing or playing.
  • Try to maintain your daily routines as much as possible.
  • Monitor your own anxiety and reactions to the event.

Preschool-aged children

  • Reassure young children that they’re safe. Provide extra comfort and contact by discussing the child’s fears at night, telephoning during the day, and providing extra physical comfort.
  • Get a better understanding of a child’s feelings about the tragedy. Discuss the events with them and find out their fears and concerns. Answer all questions they may ask and provide them loving comfort and care.
  • Structure children’s play so that it remains constructive, serving as an outlet for them to express fear or anger.

Grade school-aged children

  • Answer questions in clear and simple language.
  • False reassurance does not help this age group. Don’t say that tragedies will never happen again; children know this isn’t true. Instead, remind children that tragedies are rare, and say “You’re safe now, and I’ll always try to protect you,” or “Adults are working very hard to make things safe.”
  • Children’s fears often worsen around bedtime, so stay until the child falls asleep so he or she feels protected.
  • Monitor children’s media viewing. Images of the tragedy are extremely frightening to children, so consider significantly limiting the amount of media coverage they see.
  • Allow children to express themselves through play or drawing, and then talk to them about it. This gives you the chance to “retell” the ending of the game or the story they have expressed in pictures with an emphasis on personal safety.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” Part of keeping discussion of the tragedy open and honest is not being afraid to say you don’t know how to answer a child’s question. When such an occasion arises, explain to your child that tragedies cause feelings that even adults have trouble dealing with. Temper this by explaining that adults will still always work hard to keep children safe and secure.


  • Adolescents may try to downplay their worries, so encourage them to work out their concerns about the tragedy.
  • Children with existing emotional problems such as depression may require careful supervision and additional support.
  • Monitor their media exposure to the event and information they receive on the Internet.
  • Adolescents may turn to their friends for support. Encourage friends and families to get together and discuss the event to allay fears.

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Fostering Philanthropy in Teens

Teens and pre-teens may not always have philanthropy on their active minds, but volunteering their time can have a healthy impact on their development and help establish a sense of community. Encouraging them to commit random acts of kindness is also a wonderful way for them to learn about empathy for others, says Dr. Mery Taylor, a CHOC Children’s psychologist.

“Volunteering helps to broaden teens’ understanding of the world so they can understand there are different types of people with different types of needs. Not everyone may have the same opportunities and abilities they may have,” says Dr. Taylor. “Anybody can use their talents to help others. Altruism can actually grow the areas of your brain involved in emotions, and make you feel good you’ll want to do it again.”

It can, however, be a challenge for young teens and pre-teens to find volunteer opportunities because of age restrictions.  OneOC is an Orange County-based non-profit that helps community members of all ages find service opportunities that match their personal interests.  The organization’s comprehensive volunteer calendar offers a list of opportunities throughout Orange County. OneOC also sponsors five annual days of service that bring individuals, families, businesses and schools together to volunteer throughout the year: MLK JR. Day of Service (January), Earth Day (April), 9/11 Day of Service & Remembrance (September), Family Volunteer Day (November), and Spirit of Giving (December and April).

Additional ways for children and teens to give back include:

  • Clean out bookcases, toy chests and closets, and donate items to organizations that can accept them. Keep in mind that some organizations can only accept new items. CHOC can accept gently used books for our Family Resource Center.  Due to infection control guidelines, all other items must be newly purchased.
  • From selling lemonade to organizing a bake sale, kids can start their own fundraisers to benefit their favorite nonprofits. At CHOC, we’ve witnessed some incredible acts of kindness from children, including current and former patients and their siblings. For inspiration, read about Juneau and Jamie’s Girl Scout troop.
  • Find ways to earn, save and donate allowances. Children who wish to give back to CHOC can consider purchasing items for our patients from our wish list.

Volunteer opportunities at CHOC exist for teens ages 16 and older.

There are numerous ways to instill the giving spirit in children and teens, says Dr. Taylor. Commit to participating in community service as a family, and start a family conversation around why you are giving back. Remind them that there are many different reasons why someone could end up in a position of needing help. Parents are a model for their children, and even if your children are too young to actively volunteer, they will be able to see the impact of your regular volunteer work.

Weight-Related Bullying – Tips Parents Should Know

Bullying continues to be an unsettling epidemic that’s most apparent in our children’s schools. There are many forms of this negative behavior, but weight is one of the top reasons why some kids get “teased,” a CHOC Children’s pediatric psychologist says.

“This behavior could lead to eating disorders, such as anorexia or binge eating,” Mery Taylor, PhD explains. “Victims of weight bullying may also develop other mental or health issues, such as anxiety, depression or social isolation.”

Although bullying can occur with kids of any weight, overweight children tend to be at higher risk for bullying. This can lead to a number of consequences, including a negative body image, she says.

In recognition of National Bullying Prevention Month, we spoke to Dr. Taylor about ways parents can tackle this issue with their kids.

Dr. Taylor suggests this three-step approach when dealing with weight-related bullying:

1)      Assure your child that he is loved. Your child may be feeling unaccepted, unwanted and alone. Remind your child how much you love him and how special he is. Point out the people around him who love him and who value all the positive things about him. Focus on the positives in your child’s life.

2)      Listen. Sometimes parents want to immediately problem solve. Before any actions are taken, try to connect to your child’s emotions first. Ask your child to tell you in his own words what the issue is. Find out if this is an isolated case, or if it’s a pattern.

3)      Ask your child: How do you want to handle this? Although you may already have a plan of action in mind, ask your child what he feels comfortable with. This will help you execute your plan. If the bullying is a repeated pattern, you have even more ground to stand on and can take appropriate action. Contact the school and find out possible disciplinary action. If the problem persists, insist on having a meeting with the principal. Let the principal discuss the matter with the other family. It is rarely a good idea to confront the parents of the offending child.

Dr. Taylor also suggests looking out for changes in your child’s usual behavior, such as getting into fights, changes in sleep or appetite, acting withdrawn, angry or irritable. Sometimes the signs can be subtle, so it’s important to keep an open, honest dialogue with your child and regularly ask him about things going on at school.

Follows are additional tips to encourage a healthy body image:

  • Promote healthy eating and exercise habits and model this behavior. Depending on the case, this could be an opportunity to talk to your child about a healthier lifestyle.
  • Do not criticize your own body or others’ bodies.
  • Help your child boost his self-esteem by focusing on his talents and positive attributes.
  • Encourage your child to do the things he loves most. This could boost his confidence and help him redirect his focus.
  • Get educated on resources available for families and schools on body image and bullying.

Learn more about mental health services at CHOC.

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Helping kids cope with separation anxiety

It’s your child’s first day at her new preschool and when you try to leave, she bawls. This isn’t unusual on the first day, but you begin to worry when she continues to cry at drop-off time for the next three days.

What your child is experiencing is common and shouldn’t prompt too much concern: separation anxiety, says Dr. Mery M. Taylor, a psychologist at CHOC Children’s.

Separation anxiety often happens when small children make big transitions to new places. This begins in toddlers at age 2 or 3. Crying on the first day of preschool is normal and usually subsides after the child becomes engaged in the new environment, she says.

“It’s fairly common for kids to have separation anxiety when they are entering a new environment, like going to preschool or starting kindergarten or a new first grade,” Dr. Taylor says. “It’s not a disorder until it is prolonged.”

Separation anxiety becomes a disorder when the child cries before going to preschool for more than a week, or throws up, won’t eat, or is inconsolable for an hour. Under these circumstances, parents should be concerned.

Parents who suspect their child has a separation anxiety disorder should talk to their doctor. In the meantime, Dr. Taylor suggests parents try these steps:

  • Talk to the child and prepare her for what’s ahead. Explain what will happen at preschool, how long she will be there, what she will play and when she’ll be picked up to go home.
  • Parents should think about how they react in a situation where their child is looking to them for behavioral cues. Are they showing signs of anxiety or stress? If mom seems panicked or sad when dropping off her toddler at preschool, the child is likely to be scared too. Parents should act calm and be consistent.
  • Avoiding a stressful situation enhances the child’s fear. Parents should employ a systematic approach to desensitizing a child. If preschool causes the separation anxiety, ask the child to imagine he is there, then drive by the school, and next take him there to see it.
  •  Teach kids to engage in positive self-talk to help them cope. Have them say things like, “I can do this” and “I can’t wait to learn.”
  •  Teach your kids some physical things they can do to calm down, like yoga or walking the dog.

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Tips to handle teens’ bad attitudes

A poor attitude is a hallmark of teenagers, a CHOC Children’s pediatric psychologist tells CHOC Radio.

Dr. Mery Taylor recently stopped by Seacrest Studios to talk about why teens often have bad attitudes, and what parents can do to mitigate the effects of a dour disposition.

A teen’s bad attitude can be a product of self-absorption and egocentricity, Dr. Taylor explains. Teenagers are working to determine who they are and what they want to be. Thus, they are often uninterested in performing tasks and duties that will not directly benefit them.

Parents should talk to children about the importance of responsibility, and establish existing privileges as rewards for performing chores and duties, Dr. Taylor says.

Listen to the podcast to learn more.

Click here for more CHOC Radio episodes.