Telling Your Child or Teen About Kobe Bryant's Death

The role of parents and social media on how your child/teen copes with bad news.

Posted Jan 27, 2020

On January 26, 2020, Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, and seven friends died in a fiery helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. The news spread rapidly and inundated all media avenues. For many children and teenagers, they first heard about the unexpected deaths via social media.

Dani, a 17-year-old of San Clemente, California, learned of Kobe Bryant’s death when the headline and image of a fiery helicopter flashed across her Instagram stories. Her first reaction was to text her parents with the news, which precipitated a text exchange between herself and her parents.

For today’s youth, conversations about difficult topics may often occur via texting. While Dani was able to cope with the difficult news via messaging with her parents, child psychologists suggest caution when youth have access to the news cycle without the parent support that Dani had.

Steve Caldaronello, used with permission
Source: Steve Caldaronello, used with permission

Unlike a discrete exposure to a traumatic event, widespread and repetitive media coverage exposes the young viewer to the stressor over and over again. In doing so, children and teens are hearing about Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, and others dying in a helicopter crash in a way that keeps that acute incident salient and fresh in their minds. This may contribute to the development of anxiety or trauma-related symptoms.

For youth who have already experienced the death of loved ones or acquaintances, repeated media exposure can also cause those old memories and distressful feelings to resurface. Indeed, in a study presented at the 2015 Annual Conference of the British Psychology Society, Pam Ramsden found that nearly a quarter of participants who viewed images and videos from disturbing news events over social media reported symptoms clinically consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder. This is called vicarious or secondary trauma, a phenomenon that was initially discovered in first-responders.

Furthermore, misinformation often abounds following a high-profile death. In the initial hours following the breaking news of Kobe Bryant’s death, 12-year-old Riley of La Jolla, California, overheard false news via on-air radio that Bryant and all four of his children had died in the helicopter crash. These sensationalist and unfounded news reports can contribute to further harm, as youth tend to have difficulty understanding and parsing through real and inaccurate information. This kind of information can contribute to unnecessary increased anxiety or fears for the child or teen.

Monica Linda, used with permission
Dani with her brother, Brandon.
Source: Monica Linda, used with permission

While many children and teenagers are able to hear about death and adjust well, others may have more difficulty and find it interfering with their daily functioning, or may experience increased or new anxieties. Jesse Lozano, an on-air radio host at the 94.1 Morning Show in San Diego, California, spoke about how his son reacted to the news about Kobe Bryant’s death. Since hearing the method during which Bryant died suddenly, Lozano’s son now says he doesn’t want to go into a helicopter or other air travel. It is not unusual for children to experience anxiety or fears when they hear reports about deaths, and the most common way they express this anxiety is by avoidance—they tend to avoid their targeted anxiety or fear. In this case, Lozano’s son is expressing his anxiety through an avoidance of the mode of travel.  

How can parents take steps to help their children cope with tragic news and help to decrease the likelihood of anxiety and trauma developing?

  • It is important to note that some anxiety and fear is normal. Behavioral changes such as difficulty concentrating, irritability, and increased worries are not unusual following exposure to news about a high-profile tragic accident or death; however, these behaviors tend to be transient and decrease within a few weeks, especially if your child’s access to media exposure is appropriately limited and they have a healthy avenue to express their thoughts and feelings.
  • Take steps to limit your children's access to media whenever possible. For teenagers who carry personal smartphones, it is recommended that their access is limited at night so that nightly exposure to media does not disrupt their sleep. One effective strategy is to have a screen curfew, such as a household rule that smartphones (as well as other screens) are placed outside teenagers’ rooms at night during specified, agreed-upon hours.
  • If your child or teenager asks you about the incident, do not avoid answering the questions. Your child will get the answers, and likely misinformation, from other children or media avenues. You know your child best—and you are the best person to respond to your child. Answer the questions in a developmentally age-appropriate way. When adults avoid answering questions, they can inadvertently communicate that the news is even too scary for them to address, and thus, increasing the level of anxiety for the child. If your child/teen has inaccurate information or misconceptions, take the time to provide the correct information in simple, clear, age-appropriate language.
  • Importantly, remember that you are your teen's best model for how to cope with upsetting news or stressor. Limit your own exposure to media; turn off the TV in your home, turn down the car radio when news stories are being highlighted, and log off of social media as needed. Talk to your teenager about your own (healthy) coping strategies. If you cope with upsetting news by going for a hike, take your teen with you and explain what you are doing. When you identify and talk about your own emotional responses, you are modeling for the teen how to cope with their own emotional responses. When children and teens are unable to express their emotions in a healthy avenue, the anxiety or fear tends to manifest in other avenues, such as yelling, engaging in tantrums, socially isolating, having difficulty paying attention or concentrating, or changes in sleeping and eating.
  • Parents/caregivers may also choose to participate in calls for action to help the victims and/or their families. When doing so, it may be beneficial to talk with your children, in a developmentally age-appropriate way, about the steps you have taken to be helpful and kind to the victims. Taking helpful and concrete actions can serve to encourage children to feel more hopeful and to reduce feelings of helplessness in the face of tragedy. When you model constructive coping strategies and resilience for your child, they are learning how to cope with it themselves.
  • While children are resilient in general, some children may be more vulnerable in how they are impacted by tragedies or be at increased risk for secondary trauma. Be familiar with the red flags for concerning behaviors. If your child’s behavioral changes do not gradually decrease or are significant enough to negatively impact their social, home, or school functioning, then seek professional help. For instance, if they are avoiding going outside for fear that a helicopter crash may occur near them, then they may benefit from seeing a child mental health professional for an assessment.

In Dani’s case, when she first messaged her parents about the tragic Kobe Bryant news, they responded via texting to allow for immediate response to her. But, importantly, they made sure to follow up with Dani via a face-to-face conversation about the incident. They verbally validated her emotions and feelings of shock, and also shared their own emotional responses. Dani has recognized the importance of limiting her own consumption of media related to the tragedy and has been able to handle the tragic news in a healthy manner.

If your child or teen needs additional support or information, check out state and local mental health associations, or the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, for referrals to child/adolescent trauma experts. 

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.