When bad things happen in our lives or when we hear of tragedies in the news, it can be hard to know how to talk with our children about the events. Although every child’s needs are different, here are some thoughts to help you plan your time with family as you discuss current events or personal tragedy.

In a snapshot, here is your goal: Answer questions as appropriate for age and reassure them as often as they need it. Be willing to take the time to listen and ask questions over a stretch of time. Hug them and tell them you love them. Spend time playing, reading, praying, and doing other activities together. You are not only helping them for today, but teaching them life-long lessons about fear, hope, and compassion.

Following are some more specific questions that you might have about how to talk to children about tragedy.

If my child is not talking about the tragedy, should I bring it up?

Even if children are not asking about a tragic event, they may be hearing other people talk about it. So check in with them at different times to see if they have questions or concerns. By asking, you permit them to talk about it. They may pick up fear and anxiety as they hear other people discuss events.

If you do not talk about it with them, they may get even more scared or think they cannot go to you about it. You can start with a general statement like, “Something sad happened today (or yesterday or last week). Have you heard anyone talking about it?” And then go slowly from there.

Adults may be reluctant to bring it up because they don't want to remind the child. But when no one else is talking with children about what happened, they may feel alone with the confusing feelings or start to think they shouldn't talk about it.

How much should I tell them about what happened?

Each child will respond differently to this kind of news. You want to be honest with children and also age appropriate. If children are old enough to be getting news from the Internet and social media, you want to provide information so you can help them think through the details.

For younger children, answer their questions but keep the details limited and vague. Depending on the age of the child, discern how much detail is too much. If they are asking questions that you are uncomfortable answering, try asking them why they are wondering. Ask what they’ve already heard to find out what images might be in their head.

Do not make them feel bad for asking questions. You want them to see you as a safe place to ask questions and express concerns.

What if my child will not talk to me when I ask him or her about things?

Provide opportunities that can turn into conversations. Try talking with children and casually asking questions while playing a game or drawing together. If you are in a car together, that can be a good time to ask questions, especially for teenagers.

Don’t be afraid of some silence. It can take some time for any of us to work up the courage to ask a question or make a comment. When driving or doing other activities, the focus is not directly on the child so that can give him or her more space to open up.

You can ask some direct questions "Are you sad? Are you angry?" Even if they do not answer, you can reassure them that it is all right to be sad or angry or confused. It is all right to ask questions.

You can let them know that you are sad, too, so that they do not feel alone. But parents should not lean on children for their emotional support.

What can I do to help my children feel safe?

Hug children. Hold them if they are seeking the closeness. Do not rush them as they are processing their feelings.

Listen, listen, listen.

Limit their exposure to media if possible, including news reports, images, and social media.

Keep routines as normal as possible for children.  This will help give them a sense of security.

If your family shares a faith, pray with your children.

How do I help my child keep hope in humanity when there are so many tragic stories happening?

Find ways that your family can help others. Your volunteer work does not have to connect directly to the latest tragedy. But by finding ways to reach out and help those who are hurting, you are modeling kindness, compassion, and leadership in serving others.

When we can find ways to help others, it gives us an outlet for anxiety, fear, and anger. It will not solve all of these concerns, but it is a helpful part of the process. And importantly we will increase the number of people learning to be kind to each other and helping our neighbors.

What if my child shows minimal concern about death or tragedy?

Children grieve differently than adults. Children often change their attention and emotions quickly. A child may hear about a loss, cry and be upset one moment, and then they go play and laugh.

It is important not to assume that this quick change means that death or trauma is not bothering them. They may come back to it later in ways we don't always pick up.So if your child seems fine and is playing, don't just assume that he or she is not thinking about the tragedy at other times.

Adults have similar processes regarding what we focus on but tend not to make the sudden shifts the way children can.

Would if I have little hope of being able to make a difference?

We cannot give up caring even when surrounded by news of sad, traumatic, violent events. We need more compassion and kindness in the world. Find ways to model that for your children, too.

As we work to help our kids understand tragedy, we can also learn to help each other. Reach out to your neighbor, a stranger in line, an acquaintance, or a friend. Look around your community and see what can be done to foster peace and offer kindness.

We strive to prevent tomorrow’s violence by nurturing today’s relationships.

Be kind and patient.

Listen to others.

Let people share their hurt.

Be open to tears.

Talk to people different from you in order to understand their lives better.

Pray for guidance in how to offer love and grace more than judgment.

We will not run out of opportunities to help others. Practice hope. There is joy and beauty in that journey.

About the Author

Nancy Berns Ph.D.

Nancy Berns, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Sociology at Drake University and the author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us.

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