Talking to your children about tragic events

Talking to your children about tragic events

News is everywhere, so you need to be prepared to talk about it with your children.

Grandmother talking to grandson about serious topic

When 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 about these to their children. Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., a Children’s Health℠ clinical psychologist and Assistant 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.

Westers suggests that parents:

  • Listen to their children and encourage them to ask questions at their own level of understanding. It’s OK to say you don’t know all the answers. It’s also OK not to overwhelm them with information that they may not understand. 
  • Pay attention to younger children’s play and drawings. They may give you a clue about what they are feeling or what they know about the event. This may provide the opportunity to talk about it and perhaps clarify their questions. 
  • Don’t downplay the seriousness of the situation. Especially for older children, it is important to acknowledge the significance of the event.
  • Remind their 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 their 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 to 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.
  • Limit their own exposure to the news about the event, especially those that focus on the destruction of the event,  and use a credible news source for their updates.

Parents should make it a priority to take care of themselves and model how to handle their own anxieties and stress. Parents can  set an example by labeling their own emotion(s), verbalize their own helpful ways of thinking in the moment, and then state 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.  With good preparation, we will make it through this together.  What I'm doing to manage my own anxiety and 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?" 

If your child is old enough, watch limited news reports or read the news together to encourage conversation about the topic, but be sure to not focus only on the damage and destruction caused by the event. PBS has helpful  age-appropriate guidelines  about how much news children should be watching and what they will understand about the news. 

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anxiety, behavior, emotion, mental health, psychology