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