Aug 25, 2017, 11:18:39 AM CDT Jun 2, 2020, 2:49:56 PM CDT

How to talk to children about tragic events

It can be difficult to talk with kids about tragedies and disasters. See tips to start the conversation.

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Family member talking to childWhen a disaster or tragedy occurs, your child will likely hear and see a lot about it. The news is everywhere, and certain topics might be discussed in school or by your child's friends. Certain events could raise anxiety, so parents should be prepared to talk to their children about difficult topics. 

Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., ABPP, a Children's Health℠ clinical psychologist and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern, recommends developing age-appropriate ways for parents to talk about tragic events with their children, and that parents monitor their children's exposure to the news.

Age-appropriate ways to address tragedy with kids

When there is a disaster or tragic news, use this as a time to check in with your child. Ask them age-appropriate questions such as, "Have you heard about what's been going on in the news? What have you heard?" This can give you a chance to correct any myths or misperceptions to the best of your knowledge. You can also ask, "Has this affected you or anyone that you know?"

It is important to listen to your child without interrupting and encourage them to ask questions at their own level of understanding. It's okay to say you don't know all the answers. Even if you do know all the answers, it does not mean your child will comprehend them, so avoid overwhelming young kids with information that they may not understand. Most children want reassurance that they are safe. A detailed explanation of events doesn't always accomplish this.

Should I downplay the seriousness of current events for my child?

Don't downplay the seriousness of the situation or the significance of the event. Avoid simply saying things like "Don't worry; you'll be okay" because that signals to your child that the conversation is closed. Instead, keep the conversation open and validate your child's feelings, reinforcing that they can come to you for emotional support. For instance, "It sounds like you're worried. What are you most worried about?"

As a parent, make it a priority to take care of yourself and model how to handle your own anxieties and stress. Parents can set an example by labeling their own emotions, verbalizing their own helpful ways of thinking in the moment, and then stating clearly how they are managing their feelings about the situation while brainstorming with their child how they can do the same.

For instance, parents can say, "I'm a little worried about this, too. We will make it through this together and I will always work to keep you safe. What I'm doing to manage my own worry is [insert healthy coping here, e.g., making sure we have everything we need, taking deep breaths, eating healthy food, exercising, thinking about happier and calmer things, praying]. What do you think would help you?"

Should kids watch news about tragic events?

It is best to limit your child's amount of exposure to news about the event, especially those that focus on the destruction of the event. We should all take a break from news coverage at times for our own self-care, but this is especially important for younger children who may misinterpret repeated images in the news to mean the event is still happening or is happening again and again, causing them to feel even more anxious.

"There's a difference between being consciously aware and becoming so preoccupied with a topic that we become obsessed," says Dr. Westers.

If your child is old enough, watch limited news reports or read the news together to encourage conversation about the topic. However, be sure to take breaks and don't focus only on the damage and destruction caused by the event.

How to alleviate anxiety in children during tragic events

Maintaining routines at home is one way that parents can alleviate anxiety for their kids during hard times. For example, it is important to stick to bedtime and playtime routines that you have already established. Consistency amidst bad news and tragedy can help decrease anxiety in your child.

Remind your child to "look for the helpers," as the late Mr. Rogers was known for saying (quoting his mother). Focus on the determination of the people working together in unity rather than on the devastation of the tragedy.

Assist your child who wants to help, to help. Young children might feel happy to know that same-age children and families need encouragement, too. Perhaps writing an encouraging letter or drawing a picture for a child or family affected by the event could be their way of helping. This can foster a sense of self-efficacy, the sense that they can make a difference for the better even at their age. For older children and teens, working with various support organizations could be a valuable and more practical experience.

If your child is significantly anxious and it persists for more than a couple weeks and interferes with their day-to-day functioning, seek help from a mental health professional.

Learn more

Children's Health psychologists and psychiatrists can help children and teens manage feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety. Learn more about programs we offer to support mental, emotional and behavioral health.

You can also access emotional care and support from the comfort of your home with Virtual Visit Behavioral Health. With a behavioral health care appointment, you can speak to a board-certified psychiatrist or licensed therapist using video technology. Learn more about Virtual Visit Behavioral Health.

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anxiety, behavior, emotion, mental health, psychology

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