tragedy conversation

Talking to children about tragic events

When it comes to discussing tragedy with young children, honesty might not always be the best policy, a CHOC 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 traumatic stress response.”

Children, as well as adults, can suffer affects from watching a traumatic event unfold on TV or even hearing about it. 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 details of the event.

What is trauma?

  • Trauma is a shocking, scary or dangerous experience that leads to a strong feeling of sadness, stress or worry.
  • Traumas can be natural disasters, like a hurricane or earthquake, or a life event, like the sudden loss of a loved one. They can also be caused by others. For example, as in abuse, car accident, crime or a terrorist attack.
  • Traumas can result from direct experience, witnessing, or repeated or intense exposure to the trauma (i.e., TV or overhead conversations).

Experiencing a traumatic event is shocking and can make you fear for your safety and can contribute to traumatic stress symptoms.

Traumatic stress symptoms can include:

  • Being easily upset or angry
  • Feeling anxious, jumpy or confused
  • Being irritable or uncooperative
  • Feeling empty or numb

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.

Other caregivers

Together, discuss your concerns about what and how you might share about an event with your child. Come up with a consensus so that those close to the child on the same page and presenting a consistent message. Consider what the school or teachers may relay to the student body. Often, a school district may send out a position statement on tragedies affecting the community. How might this impact what you share with your child?

Siblings and older peers

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 news 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 than 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.

We understand that as the caretaker of a child, it can be stressful to make decisions about relaying tragic news to them. Here are more quick tips for parents on talking to children about traumatic events:

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. Ensure you are practicing self-care.
  • Emphasize what people are doing to help others impacted by the tragedy.

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 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 this happens, 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

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

Should parents opt to discuss tragic events with children, or should the child already be aware of the circumstances, Mental Health America and National Child Traumatic Stress Network offer more ways parents can talk to their children about tragedy-related anxiety and help them cope.

If you think your child would benefit from speaking to a pediatric mental health professional, ask your pediatrician for a referral to a pediatric psychologist.

This article was updated Jan. 15, 2021.

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