How to Talk to Children When Tragedy Strikes

father comforting young son

As parents, we often want to shelter our children from the news of tragic events.  Unfortunately, it seems that every time we watch the news, we hear of another shooting or bombing.  It can be very scary for anyone to watch the news and wonder if it will happen in our hometown, our office building, or our children’s school.  Talking to children about tragedy is difficult.  Figuring out what to say and what not to say can be complicated.  Here are some suggestions on navigating the difficult questions children will inevitably ask.

Be honest, but consider the child’s age and find out what the child knows first.  If the child asks you a question about the event, respond first by asking the child what he/she has heard.  You don’t want to provide more information than necessary.  Younger children do not need detailed information about the event nor will they understand much of what actually happened.  Older children may have more specific questions and are looking to you for an honest answer to their concerns.

Assure them they are safe.  A child may exhibit fear and anxiety out of concern for their own safety.  Children are looking to you to help them feel secure.  Reassure them that they are currently in no danger.  Talk with them about the safety measures in their school and community.

Turn off the TV and news and avoid social media. Watching a tragic event over and over may increase anxiety and fear.  We often stay glued to the TV when something tragic happens.  To avoid increased anxiety, turn off the news and social media and do something together as a family or watch something inspiring and uplifting.

Be careful what you say and how you act.  Children are very observant and will model your behavior.  Don’t avoid reacting to the news of the tragedy, but be aware of how your reactions affect your children.  You want to create an environment in which you react appropriately to the tragic news, while being sensitive to your children’s needs.  Balance is key.  Let them know that it is okay to be sad or scared and direct them to accept their feelings as a normal reaction to a difficult situation.  Showing your child extra physical affection can help them feel more secure, so make time for extra hugs and cuddling.

Be okay with “I don’t know.”  Perhaps one of the most daunting questions we all ask, and children are no exception, is “Why?”  Do not be afraid to tell them “I don’t know.”  We don’t always have the answer, and sometimes a child just needs a listening ear.

Give them the opportunity to pray for the victims and their families.  Show your children that they can help by praying.  Pray with your children, pray for them, and teach them to pray for others.

Find the helpers.  As our childhood icon Mr. Rogers so eloquently said, “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.’ To this day, especially, in time of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers- so many caring people in this world” (Rogers, 2002).  It is easy to focus on the “bad guy” and lose sight of all the heroes in the event.  Point your children to find those heroes.

Get involved and show your appreciation to your local emergency personnel.  Encourage your children to write a thank you note to a police officer, firefighter, or paramedic.  Grab some sweet treats at the store and take them to your local police department, fire department, or rescue squad.  Not only will your children get to see the police cars and maybe honk the horn of the fire truck, they will get to meet and talk with their local heroes.  Teach your children that these are the people who respond to tragic events and they are the ones who keep us safe.  This will give children a sense of security each time they see an emergency vehicle with its lights and sirens.

Seek professional help if needed.  If you feel your child has developed more anxiety and fear than normal, do not hesitate to seek help from a professional.  If your child begins to have behavior changes, sleep problems, eating issues, and trouble concentrating, it may be time to talk with a professional.  Counseling can be beneficial in helping your children learn essential coping skills when faced with tragedy.

Rogers, F. (2002). The Mister Rogers Parenting Book: Helping to understand your young child. Philadelphia,      PA: Running Press

By Heather Braddock, MA
Covenant Counseling Center




EMDR: Help for Trauma and Distress

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What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a cost-effective, non-invasive, evidence-based method of therapy that tends to help clients reprocess traumatic or distressful experiences in a way that rapidly leads to peaceful resolution. Under the guidance of a trained therapist, EMDR accomplishes this resolution by using bi-lateral alternating sensory stimulation, such as eye-movement, auditory tones, or tactile stimulation.

EMDR often results in increased helpful insight about previously disturbing events.  A shift away from long held negative, unhelpful thoughts about the self is often experienced, as well.

Francine Shapiro, PhD, an American psychologist, developed EMDR in the late 1980’s. An ever-growing community of therapists soon saw its power to transform lives. At the same time, controlled research studies consistently demonstrated its effectiveness.

How does EMDR work?

As research advances our understanding of how the brain processes intense memories and emotions, a number of neuropsychologists believe EMDR enables a person to rapidly access traumatic memories and process them emotionally and cognitively. This integration of emotions and thoughts appears to facilitate rapid resolution of traumatic stress. Typically, by accessing these memories in a safe, therapeutic environment, new learning occurs that eliminates emotional distress and encourages new, helpful perspectives about the memories.

“We believe that EMDR induces a fundamental change in brain circuitry similar to what happens in REM sleep—that allows the person undergoing treatment to more effectively process and incorporate traumatic memories into general association networks in the brain. This helps the individual integrate and understand the memories within the larger context of his or her life experience.”Robert Stickgold, Ph.D., Harvard Medical School

What is an EMDR Session like?

EMDR offers rapid therapy for a person who has experienced intense distress or trauma. Consequently, it is important at the outset for the client to know that he or she is in charge at all times.

To begin the EMDR protocol, the therapist will guide the client in identifying a “safe place” mental image. For example, the client could envision being on a peaceful beach, beside a lazy river, or in a quiet library—whatever works best for the individual. The therapist can use this individualized, soothing image later to reassure the client that they are in control.

Next, the client identifies a “mental snapshot” of the disturbing experience and discusses with the therapist how the experience has affected her or him. Then, as the therapist guides, the client will identify the negative cognition connected with the trauma, and a positive cognition the client would prefer to have instead. When these are established, the client is ready to begin.

The therapist will have thoroughly explained one of the bi-lateral, alternating sensory applications mentioned above and will guide the client through the reprocessing experience. It is during this part of the therapy that the negative cognition of self associated with the trauma is more thoroughly processed. Again, the client can be assured that he or she is in control at all times. The therapist will check in with the client several times to assess the client’s sense of empowerment.

Empowerment is reinforced toward the end of the EMDR session by focusing on the positive cognition in connection with the trauma. During this segment, the bi-lateral sensory stimulation often signals new, more positive perceptions of self for the client. These more empowering perceptions of self, along with other insights that might have surfaced, are reviewed as the session concludes.

As the session concludes, a follow-up session would be scheduled to check in with the client. Important insight and understanding often occur following the EMDR session. Consequently, the therapist follows up with client to evaluate any additional reprocessing and check for other therapeutic issues that might have come up during the days following the EMDR.

Today, many therapists and clients consider EMDR a “gift” to the therapeutic goals of improved self-image, relationships, and well-being.

“EMDR is one of the most powerful tools I’ve encountered for treating posttraumatic stress. In the hands of a competent and compassionate therapist, it gives people the means to heal themselves.”

Steven Silver, Ph.D.
Former director of the PTSD  Unit,
Veterans Administration Medical Center,
Coatesville,  Pennsylvania

For further references and information, please see this link:

By Nancy Cross, M.A., LPC-MHSP
EMDR Therapist
Covenant Counseling Center