How to Talk With Your Kids When Tragedy Strikes
December 18, 2019
Talking to your child about tragedy is difficult when all you want to do is shelter him from sadness. Here’s how you can help him deal with the aftermath in a healthy way.
Whether it’s a national tragedy, a local shooting, or a death in the family, sooner or later tragic events will happen during the course of your kid’s life. How you manage your own reaction and communication with your children will have a strong impact on how your kids learn to cope.
Here are some strategies for speaking with your kids in the wake of tragic events:
Manage Your Own Reaction First
Your children may become more afraid about what happened if you are visibly upset when you sit down to talk with them. While explaining to them that you are affected by what happened teaches them that being sad when something tragic happens is natural and OK, seeing an adult who is flustered or crying can frighten them.
Even if you’re feeling emotionally stable, it also won’t be helpful if you haven’t worked out your own thoughts about the event. If you need a moment to collect yourself, take a few deep breaths in a private place.
Your kids — even young ones — will have questions. Once you are calm, you can guide them through what happened. It’s not your job to have all the answers, but it is your responsibility to have at least some of them. Know for sure some of the facts, even if they’re only preliminary and likely to change.
Tell the Truth
Make adjustments for age-appropriateness, but stick to the truth. Kids are inherently good at picking out lies their parents tell them. But more importantly, withholding the truth isn’t going to protect them. What’s more likely is that your kids will learn the truth elsewhere and come to distrust you in times of crisis.
Every parent wants to shelter their children from painful life events, but telling lies — even well-intentioned ones — will only serve to make your kids more vulnerable. Gently tell them the hard truth, and teach them how to deal with it.
Ask What They Know
This is especially useful for two reasons. First, it allows you the opportunity to correct bad information. Kids get their information generally from other kids, and those kids are more often than not only in partial possession of the facts.
Second, this is the best way to understand what your own child is dealing with. Is his response mostly emotional? Does he seem scared? Is he angry? Does he seem entirely untroubled?
Tragedy: Rare, But Part of Life
Many children, especially young children, will be concerned that tragedy may strike again soon. Be sure to stress that tragedy is a rare occurrence. Bombings, shootings, death in general, is not a daily or weekly happening.
Kids may ask if you or other loved ones will die soon. The main goal here should be to comfort your child and explain that this is not likely to happen.
At the same time, don’t shield your children from the reality of the world. Don’t tell them you’re never going to die, or that no bad thing will ever happen again. Learning how to cope with tragedy is an important life skill. You do your child no favors if you pretend tragedy is a one-time affair.
Look Towards a Better Future
Finding the positive within a tragedy can feel impossible in the wake of what has happened and is a tricky balance. While it’s a good idea to try and help your children see how tragedy can move us to action, make us be kinder to one another, or accentuate our appreciation for someone or something that is gone, it’s important to emphasize these things in a respectful manner.
Point out these hopeful moments to your children as you see them occur. This will teach them that while tragedy is a hard part of life, the way we move on from it can help us grow and improve.
Empower Your Kids
Along similar lines, help your child find ways to make an impact after a tragedy. This can be as simple as donating to charities, giving blood (if your child is old enough), or writing letters to victims of tragedy.
In the case of family tragedies, kids can be encouraged to write eulogies, decorate for funerals, carry caskets, choose photos and music.
Empowerment is the main way people cope and find a way of dealing with tragedy. If your children feel there is nothing they can do, then they may feel scared and helpless. Allowing your child to be actively involved in the aftermath of what happened will give him a sense of security and control, even in the face of events where there is none.
Turn Off the TV
There is a difference between staying informed and being flooded with information. If you want to keep up with the news on a daily basis, read about it on your phone, tablet, or computer. Your children will cope better if they are not doused with images and music of tragedy every time they enter the house.
Every parent hopes that her child will never have to deal with sadness or despair. Yet, by addressing the tragedy and the feelings it brings in a healthy way, you will be showing your child that he is capable of getting through difficult moments, and you will build the skills he needs to be able to do that on his own in the future.
How to Talk to Kids About Tragedies in the Media. (n.d.). Retrieved August 24, 2014, from Child Development Insitute
Markham, L. (2013, April 16). Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids. Retrieved August 24, 2014, from Psychology Today
Talking with Kids About Tragedy. (n.d.). Retrieved August 24, 2014, from Bradley Hospital