Talking to Young Children about Tragic Events

Talking to Young Children about Tragic Events

by Naomi Shicly, JCFS Chicago

School shootings, hate crimes, terrorist threats, community violence and threats of war are just some of the examples of today’s tragedies that unfortunately, our children are exposed to thanks to the many sources of media coverage. No matter how much parents or teachers try to keep the “bad things” away, children’s lives are touched by trauma. Even children as young as four years old may hear about major crisis events. Parents and other adults may struggle with how to talk to kids about tragic events. Taking a proactive stance, discussing difficult events in an age-appropriate language while respecting their emotional intelligence and maturity level, helps them grapple with “grown-up” issues. Addressing tough topics not only makes kids feels safer, but also teaches them about the world and helps them become critical thinkers. By investing young children with knowledge, compassion and strong character, we can give them the tools they need to make things better.

The underlying message for an adult to convey to a young child is that their school and home are safe and that adults are there to protect them. It's important to let children know they can always come to you. Listen carefully to what they already know, pay attention to misinformation, misconceptions and underlying fears or concerns and gently correct inaccurate information in simple and clear language. Encourage children to ask questions and answer those questions directly. Keep in mind, what may not be upsetting to an adult may be very upsetting and confusing to a child. Also, be patient; in times of stress, children may have trouble with their behavior, concentration and attention. While they may not openly ask for your guidance or support, they will want it. Reiterate you are available to answer any questions, to talk about this topic again in the future, and most importantly, reassure them they are loved.

Tips for talking to kids age 2–6

  • Keep the news at bay. Limit how much your child sees of any news event. Children need us to spend time with them, away from the frightening images on the screen. If you do choose media to show them, make sure it is targeted to their age. 
  • Reassure with both words and gestures. Say, "you're safe. Mommy and daddy are safe. And our family and community are safe." Give a child extra physical comfort as it goes a long way towards providing inner security. Be patient and gentle, yet also help children return to regular functioning at home and school as structure is healing and normality is soothing. 
  • Address feelings, yours and theirs.  Say, "It's okay to feel scared, sad, or confused. Those feelings are natural, and we all feel them." Also try: "I'm upset, but not with you." It is appropriate for adults to acknowledge that they, too, are concerned about the state of the world, but we should not impose our feelings on children. It’s okay to let a child know if you’re sad, but if you talk to a child about a traumatic experience in a highly emotional way, then he will likely absorb your emotion and very little else. If, on the other hand, you remain calm, he is likely to grasp what’s important.
  • Find out what they know. Even if children don't mention what they've seen or heard in the news, it can help to ask what they think has happened before giving them any imagery. Distinguish between "real" and "pretend." Young kids have rich fantasy lives and mix up make-believe and reality. They may ask you if a scary story is really true. There is no need to understate a point, but it is important to be honest. 
  • Break down issues to their simplest terms. For violent crime, you can say, "Someone used a gun to hurt people." For hate crimes, try, "Some groups of people still aren't treated equally or fairly."
  • Catch your own biases as we all have them. Avoid describing a person's ethnicity, sexual identity, weight, financial status, and so on unless it's relevant to the issue.  Correct yourself if you give incomplete or inaccurate information.
  • Use vocabulary, ideas and relationships that they're familiar with. Recall a recent, similar situation from their lives that they can relate to. Thank them for being willing to talk about something that is hard or confusing.
  • Use basic terms for feelings such as "mad," "sad," "afraid," "happy" and "surprised." Young children understand emotions, but they don't totally understand mental illness. You can say that someone was angry too much or confused too much and needed extra help. Simplify complex ideas and move on. Use concrete terms and familiar references your kid will understand and try not to over explain. About a mass shooting, say, "A man who was very, very confused and angry took a gun and shot people. The police are working to make sure people are safe."
  • Communicate that someone's in charge. Say, "Mommy and daddy will make sure nothing bad happens to our family." Or, "The police will catch the bad guy." In times of crisis, children want to know, "Who will take care of me?" as they are dependent on adults for their survival and security. They're naturally self-centered so they focus on how things affect them. They need to hear very clearly that their parents are doing all they can to take care of them and to keep them safe. They also need to hear that people in the government and other grownups they don’t even know are working hard to keep them safe, too.  In the case of scary news, even if you're a little rattled, it's important for young children to know they're safe, their family is OK, and someone is taking care of the problem. Focus attention on the helpers, like the police, firemen, doctors, nurses, paramedics, spiritual leaders and volunteers that are involved so children can see the good in any bad event.

(Adapted from Common Sense Media)

By allowing and encouraging children to express their feelings, it can help them build healthy coping skills that will serve them well in the future and confidence that they can overcome adversity.  Not only do children need to know they are physically safe, but also that it is safe for them to voice their feelings. If we can help them accept their own feelings as natural and normal, their feelings will be much more manageable for them.

Children may also have spiritual and religious reactions as well during these times that there is grief. Continue to guide, educate, encourage and inspire them to shed light on facts, forming perspective and for psychological and interpersonal tips for coping. It is confidence-building for kids to know that there is a great amount that could be learned from negative experiences. 

Children need to know that people are not powerless in the face of hate; there are many things children and adults can do. Have regular discussions about ways people can address hate and discuss specific steps to make these things happen. Help children understand that if hateful words go unchallenged, they can escalate to acts of physical violence. Let children know if you're donating, going to a town meeting, writing a letter or e-mail of support, or taking some other action. It can help children to know that adults take many different active roles and that we don't give in to helplessness in times of worldwide crisis. Ways in which a child is guided through a crises or trauma will shape the ways in which they will respond to subsequent life challenges. The words that are delivered, the demeanor that is demonstrated and the honesty, sincerity and respectfulness that is exhibited can teach them resiliency and can equip them with tools and skills for coping and handling stress. After September 11, Fred Rogers said: “We are all called to be ‘Tikkun Olam,’ repairers of creation.” Discussing these difficult topics to our children will help them to become the worlds’ future peacemakers, the world’s future “helpers.”

To schedule a workshop for parents on this or other topics, please contact Tracey Kite.