Discussing Tragedies with Children

The article below originally appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Hamilton County Family magazine. While the events it references are not current, the advice it offers remains on point and we hope it will offer guidance in the face of more recent tragedies.


In this information age, news is constantly at our fingertips – it comes to us on our phones, our tablets, our televisions, 24 hours a day. At no time does news spread more quickly than when tragedy strikes.

When the storm of the century hits or a lone gunman takes the lives of the innocent, the news arrives instantly and the airwaves and cyberspace are inundated with the details. In 2012 alone, devastating tornadoes ripped through the southern half of our state, a gunman opened fire on a group of unsuspecting moviegoers in Colorado, and a super storm ravaged our nation’s northeast. With information on these tragic events so readily available, parents often grapple with how to explain them to their children when they, as adults, can barely wrap their heads around the devastation.

Then, on December 14, 2012, a gunman entered an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and took the lives of 26 innocent people, including 20 children… and everything changed. Parents snapped to attention and the conversation about how to discuss tragedies with children became very real. Parents stood at bus stops and pick-up lines that day, their minds reeling: “How will I tell my children? If I tell them, will they ever feel safe again? If I don’t tell them, will someone else?”

“When major events occur in our society, there is a strong likelihood that parents simply cannot shield their children from the emotional and, sometimes, personal storm that follows,” Stephanie D. Lowe Sagebiel, LCSW, with CenterPoint Counseling admits. Although it seems to go against the parental instinct to protect children from the harsh realities of the world, it is crucial to keep them informed in a responsible manner in order to preserve their sense of safety.

Following are some suggestions on discussing tragedies with children.

Take care of your own emotions first

Anyone who has traveled by airplane is aware that, in case of emergency, parents should secure their own oxygen masks before assisting children with theirs. Until we have ensured our own safety, we are of little use to our children. The same is true of emotions. “When a parent first learns about an event, it would be helpful if they could acknowledge, embrace and allow their own feelings to emerge, separate from their children,” Sagebiel advises. It is natural to experience a slew of emotions when news of tragedy breaks. “We may become deeply saddened or even enraged at the stories we hear, because we are parents, because we are human,” Sagebiel points out. It is ok to let children know you are sad, but they should also be assured that you have not lost all hope. If your own feelings are overwhelming you, seek help by talking with friends or family members, a religious leader or a mental health professional.

Limit exposure

In times of disaster, our minds struggle to make sense of what happened and so we tend to immerse ourselves in the details looking for some sort of explanation. The American Psychological Association has conducted numerous studies that show a link between constant exposure to news coverage of tragic events and a heightened level of anxiety and fear in children. The same holds true for adults. Every time you turn on the news, you are opening yourself up to fresh emotions. Taking a break from the coverage will allow you to stay focused on helping your child work through his fears, and will ensure your child is not overexposed to images he may have a tough time shaking.

Let your child be your guide

Parents should broach the subject by finding out what their child already knows about the event in question. In discussing the events of Newtown, CT, Sagebiel advises a simple starting point could have been, “I wonder if you heard about what happened in Connecticut?” Sagebiel adds that, “It is important to understand what the child has seen and heard and what they understand before the parent jumps in with specifics.” Nico Squadroni, LCSW, agrees, adding that, “listening to your child allows you to find out what his fears are.” For instance when discussing the movie theater shooting in Aurora, CO, we may assume that a child may now be afraid of going to the movies; however, maybe he has a relative that works in or near a movie theater and he is worried about them, or maybe he feels it is unsafe to visit Colorado. “We cannot just assume that we know what the child is thinking because he may have very specific fears that need to be addressed,” Squadroni adds.

Explanations should also be age-appropriate. For preschoolers and younger, it is only necessary to discuss tragic events if you are aware the child has been exposed to the news. In this case, simple statements like, “That happened very far away from our home. You are safe,” should suffice.

For early elementary children, Squadroni recommends using words they can relate to, such as “bad guys”, to convey very basic details and answer questions as simply as possible.

Beginning in the late elementary to early middle school years, children start to process information more logically, which may require more detailed explanation. Take cues from your child in regards to what he knows and what he feels he needs to know. Children at this age may feel compelled to express an opinion about the events…let them, and then let those thoughts guide the conversation.

Provide reassurance

Begin by reminding your child of the rarity of catastrophic events. Squadroni suggests pulling out a map for younger children and allowing them to visualize the distance between them and the incident – show them Indiana in relation to Connecticut or Colorado. Let them know that natural disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis are not a possibility in our landlocked location.

Remind your child that it’s the job of grown-ups to keep them safe, and that you and the other adults in their life will always work very hard to do that job. Discuss all of the systems that are in place to ensure their safety – smoke detectors, tornado sirens, seatbelts, bicycle helmets. Sagebiel also suggests going over safety plans for various emergencies that may arise – tornadoes, earthquakes, fires, school lock-downs. “Anxiety and fear about one’s own safety comes mostly from unpredictability and fear of the unknown. Walking through safety plans offers a sense of empowerment that can feel comforting in an unpredictable world,” Sagebiel says.

Focus on the good

This may sound contradictory in the face of devastating news, but with the horrific also comes the heroic. Place an emphasis on those who are there to help in times of need – firefighters, police officers, doctors, and everyday citizens who stop to lend a helping hand. The late Fred Rogers summarized this best: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

And then do something good

There is nothing worse than feeling helpless in times of crisis. Often in the face of tragedy, the best way to offer help is not immediately clear. But helping does not need to be specific to the events at hand. Bake a batch of cookies and deliver them to a local nursing home; organize a canned-food drive in your neighborhood to help keep a local food pantry stocked; give blood as a family; head to your neighbor’s house to help with yard work. All help is good help.

Helping your children find ways to give back will remind them that the good in this world far outweighs the bad. That is something we all need to remember.



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