Mom, could that happen to me? At my school?
After learning about tragic, violent and traumatic events, your child may feel worried, confused and have many questions. And you may feel at a loss for words. How much information should you share with a young child about a tragic event?
Here are some suggestions to help your family better navigate and cope with tragedy.
Try to stick to the daily routine: Predictability helps your child feel calm and safe, so continue with everyday activities, such as playing, learning, reading stories, serving foods that are familiar. Be sure to spend some quality time together as well – this recharges your child’s sense of well-being and safety.
Turn off the news/monitor screen time: Avoid exposing your child to graphic images and descriptions of troubling events. It can be really scary and worrisome for both of you. If you wish to keep up to date on what is happening, try to do so discreetly. An older child or teen may wish to read about news events, try to find reputable sources that focus on news. Remember to be available to answer questions and discuss what they have read about.
All questions are good questions: Children may ask “WHY?” a lot, or “Will this happen to me?” and “Are we safe?” these are all valid questions and a chance to calm fears. Answer questions as best as you can with simple explanations and try not to invalidate feelings by saying things like “don’t be silly” or “stop worrying”.
If you can’t answer a question, let your child know you will think about it and answer it when you can, you don’t have to have all answers right away.
Sometimes it’s helpful to just ask a question in return:
- “What do you know about what happened?”
- “What have you heard about this?”
- “Did you hear something about _______ at school?”
Asking questions in a kind and curious way can give you a better understanding of what and how much your child is aware of. And what they need clarification about.
Psychotherapist and Parenting Educator Andrea Nair suggests using a neutral, non scarry tone to explain scarry news:
If it happens that your younger child hears about a violent news story, be truthful but not scary. Do not lie. Try something like, “Something very tragic happened today and people are upset and scared because some people have died.”
Listen & validate: Encourage your child to freely express her emotions and thoughts about what has happened. Validate their feelings and remember that for children, crying is very normal and a healthy way to process emotions related to fear and worry. Avoid telling your child “not to worry” as this will not help the worry pass. Instead, aim to simply listen and understand what the worry is about.
Remain kind and firm: Along with crying, some children look for different ways to process their feelings and express that they need help, connection and attention. Children may throw stuff, cry over what seems to be “nothing”, bother siblings, or say NO to everything. All that is ok, and will likely pass but it’s important to be compassionate, understanding and kind while still setting limits because in those limits is a lot of security for children.
Inspire a sense of hope: Particularly with tragic events, it can be helpful to talk to children about how hope and kindness exist and that many many people in the world work really hard to help people when scary things happen. Talk about the work of police officers, fire fighters, nurses, doctors, and ambulance drivers , teachers, kind friends and neighbors. Talk about everyone that works hard, these are the helpers that want to keep the world safe.
Take care of yourself: Taking care of you, both physically and emotionally, is so important, for every day parenting and particularly during difficult situations. When you fill your own cup you are better able to be supportive, patient and helpful to your child. Don’t be afraid to lean in to your support system of family, friends, neighbors, community, church groups for help. Be aware of your own feelings, and take time to express yourself, talking, journaling, calling a friend etc…Especially young children take their cues from parents, so if you can stay calm, your child is more likely to be calm as well. This doesn’t mean you should hide your feelings, but just be aware of what you are modeling.
Tragedies and difficult moments are tough to understand for children and for us adults. Watching our children become upset, fearful or confused is not easy at all. We can’t undo what happened, we cannot keep our children from feeling upset but we can be supportive and loving and open to all the questions- And very grateful for every day we have together with our wonderful children, friends and family. Keep striving to be kind, positive and compassionate.
Peace & Be Well,
For more resources on how to talk to children about tragedy check out these posts:
Here for each Other: Tips for Parents and Caregivers from Sesame Street (PDF)
Talking to Children about Tragedy from Bonnie Harris – Connective Parenting
How to Talk to Kids about Scary and Violent News – Andrea Nair
How to Talk to Kids about Tragedy like School shootings from Dr. Laura Markham at AHA!Parenting
Talking to Children about Violence and Terrorism from Kids’ Health
Talking to Kids about the News from PBS
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