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What to Say, and When to Say It, After the Next Tragedy

Helping young children manage the unthinkable.

Key points

  • There is no one right thing to say when it comes to talking to young children about tragedy.
  • Listening matters more than talking; a child’s questions will lead you to what, and how much, information they need.
  • Books can help children relate to their feelings.

When Sam came home from a playdate with his preschool BFF, his father noticed that he seemed upset and unusually irritable. After a snack, they sat down together and he said, “Sam, you seem unhappy. What’s the matter?” Sam looked up anxiously at his dad and asked, “Dad, what’s a salt gun?” Bewildered, Sam’s dad did not launch into an interrogation, but asked simply where he’d heard about one. A story slowly emerged of the friend’s babysitter watching her cell phone and starting to cry. When Sam asked what she was looking at, she turned off the phone. When questioned by the boys, she told them some “children were shot by a man with a salt [assault] gun.” Sam then barraged his father with questions, giving him no time to answer. “Did the police find him... What’s his name… Does he live here... When is mommy coming home?”

Sam’s father had read about the shooting but had no idea that Sam would hear about it, too. He'd had no intention of mentioning it, given its distance from Sam’s life. Now the cat was out of the bag, and he found his heart racing as he began to search for the “right thing” to say.

There is no one right thing to say, ever. Listening matters more than talking because your child’s questions will lead you to what—and how much—information they need. By waiting to hear what Sam was thinking and feeling, his father knew immediately that Sam didn’t need an answer about the caliber of assault rifles; he needed to know that he was safe, that his mom was safe, and that he is not where the man with a “salt” gun lived. By listening as patiently as he could to the story Sam pieced together, his father heard questions he could answer. He would have been wrong to assume that Sam was worried about the same things he was, and probably would have overloaded him with even more worries.

Whether it’s a mass shooting, war in another country, or any of the other horrific events that seem to cascade into our daily lives, here are a few truths to guide parents of young children:

  • You don’t need to get it “right.” There is no perfect thing to say that will make everything alright. And there is little to be gained by trying to force a child to talk when they are not ready. Give it time, keep the door open, and make it comfortable for them to talk about their feelings. Talking occasionally about your own can be helpful to them.
  • Talking is better than remaining silent. Being silent or avoiding the issue is tempting, but you are missing a chance to help your child understand and cope. You don’t want this left to upset babysitters to manage.
  • It is the events that are heartbreaking, not the discussion about them. Keep that in mind as you prepare to talk with your children.
  • The news can make things worse. Graphic images on our devices exponentially intensify our sense of vulnerability, which is NOT something our children need to feel or cope with. Get your news from earbuds or after they are asleep.
  • Books can help children relate to their feelings. Reading stories with children and talking about how the characters may feel often helps young ones open up and begin to talk about their own feelings and fears. A few of my favorite books to support children in sharing and talking about their feelings include Once I Was Very Very Scared by Chandra Ippen; My Friend is Sad by Mo Willems; The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld; and Lots of Feelings by Shelley Rotner.

After Sam finished his snack, he sat for a calming moment on his dad’s lap with his arms curled around his neck. He hopped down when his grandmother came into the kitchen, told her the story of the “salt” gun, and asked her the same questions his father had answered not 10 minutes before. No one loves repetition like a preschooler who wants to understand something important.

More from Kyle D. Pruett M.D.
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More from Kyle D. Pruett M.D.
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