A Parent’s Guide To Talking About Tragedy

How can I help my children understand tragedy?

In the age of social media, 24/7 news coverage, and YouTube, many parents and adults that care about children, find themselves struggling with how to help their children understand tragedy and process events to which they are exposed.

Frankly, it’s hard to know what to say when tragedies happen that are so horrific and senseless that we as adults have a difficult time understanding them. Although I tend to think of every parent as the expert on their particular child, it’s generally necessary to talk to your children about the tragedy or trauma, regardless of whether or not they seem affected or are talking about it.

When a national tragedy happens, they WILL hear about it. We must remember that children have a natural tendency to fill in the gaps, to make sense of the world by filling in pieces of information they don’t have or don’t understand with information that they DO understand.

This can lend its hand to a whole host of other problems including fear and misunderstanding, so it is our duty to provide children with accurate and developmentally appropriate information.

This doesn’t mean that it’s necessary to lay out all the details for them about what happened, but honesty is the best policy. “Honest, but gentle,” is what I like to say.

The American Psychological Association has offered some suggestions to help guide the conversation:

Think about what you want to say. It’s OK to practice in your head, to a mirror or with another adult. Some advanced planning may make the discussion easier. You won’t have to think about it off the top of your head.

Find a quiet moment. Perhaps this is after dinner or while making the next day’s lunch.  This is time and place where your children can be the center of your attention.

Find out what they know. For example, there was a shooting at a school or a bomb set off in another country. Ask them “What have you heard about this?” And then listen. Listen. Listen. And listen more.

Share your feelings with your child. It is OK to acknowledge your feelings with your children. They see you are human. They also get a chance to see that even though upset, you can pull yourself together and continue on.  Parents hear it often: Be a role model. This applies to emotions, too.

Tell the truth. Lay out the facts at a level they can understand. You do not need to give graphic details.

For young children, you may need to have the conversation about what death means (no longer feel anything, not hungry, thirsty, scared, or hurting; we will never see them again, but can hold their memories in our hearts and heads).

Say, “I don’t know.” Sometimes the answer to the question is “I don’t know.” “Why did the bad people do this?” “I don’t know” fits.

Above all, reassure. At the end of the conversation, reassure your children that you will do everything you know how to do to keep them safe and to watch out for them. Reassure them that you will be available to answer any questions or talk about this topic again in the future. Reassure them that they are loved.

Kids and teenagers will likely need to be reassured that they are safe, but it’s not fair to attempt to reassure them by telling them such an event will never happen where you live although even though the likelihood is very, very small.  You can, however, tell kids all the things that you and others are doing to ensure their safety.

ALL feelings are normal!

Your child may have a lot of questions about the tragedy and it’s important for you to be available to answer and listen when they’d like to talk about it. You may also need to assure them that all of their feelings are normal.

Children who have a history of trauma or who have a history of depression, anxiety, or another pre-existing mental health issue may respond to national events and tragedy differently and it’s important to be sensitive to that.

By continuing to be present and letting your children know that it’s ok to feel how they feel, you are paving the way for your child to process the event in a healthy way.

There are many great resources out there if you feel that you or your children need additional help to cope with tragedy. If you find that your children are experiencing anxiety related to the tragedy, Mental Health America offers an age-by-age guide to help children cope:

Pre-School Age Children

Behavior such as bed-wetting, thumb sucking, baby talk, or a fear of sleeping alone may intensify in some younger children, or reappear in children who had previously outgrown them. They may complain of very real stomach cramps or headaches, and be reluctant to go to school. It’s important to remember that these children are not “being bad” –they’re afraid. Here are some suggestions to help them cope with their fears:

  • Reassure young children that they’re safe. Provide extra comfort and contact by discussing the child’s fears at night, by telephoning during the day and with extra physical comforting.
  • Get a better understanding of a child’s feelings about the tragedy. Discuss the tragedy with them and find out each child’s particular fears and concerns. Answer all questions they may ask and provide them loving comfort and care. You can work to structure children’s play so that it remains constructive, serving as an outlet for them to express fear or anger.

Grade School Age Children

Children this age may ask many questions about the tragedy, and it’s important that you try to answer them in clear and simple language. If a child is concerned about a parent who is distressed, don’t tell a child not to worry–doing so will just make him or her worry more.

Here are several important things to remember with school-age children:

  • False reassurance does not help this age group. Don’t say tragedys will never affect your family again; children will know this isn’t true. Instead, say “You’re safe now and I’ll always try to protect you,– or–Adults are working very hard to make things safe.” Remind children that tragedys are very rare. Children’s fears often get worse around bedtime, so you might want to stick around until the child falls asleep in order to make him or her feel protected.
  • Monitor children’s media viewing. Images of the tragedy and the damage are extremely frightening to children, so consider limiting the amount of media coverage they see. A good way to do this without calling attention to your own concern is to regularly schedule an activity–story reading, drawing, movies, or letter writing, for example–during news shows.
  • Allow them to express themselves through play or drawing. As with younger children, school-age children sometimes find comfort in expressing themselves through playing games or drawing scenes of the tragedy. Allowing them to do so, and then talking about it, gives you the chance to “re-tell” the ending of the game or the story they have expressed in pictures with an emphasis on personal safety.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” Part of keeping discussion of the tragedy open and honest is not being afraid to say you don’t know how to answer a child’s question. When such an occasion arises, explain to your child that tragedys are extremely rare, and they cause feelings that even adults have trouble dealing with. Temper this by explaining that, even so, adults will always work very hard to keep children safe and secure.


Encourage these youth to work out their concerns about the tragedy. Adolescents may try to down-play their worries. It is generally a good idea to talk about these issues, keeping the lines of communication open and remaining honest about the financial, physical and emotional impact of the tragedy on your family. When adolescents are frightened, they may express their fear through acting out or regressing to younger habits.

  • Children with existing emotional problems such as depression may require careful supervision and additional support.
  • Monitor their media exposure to the event and information they receive on the Internet.
  • Adolescents may turn to their friends for support. Encourage friends and families to get together and discuss the event to allay fears.

Also, The Disaster Distress Helpline, 1-800-985-5990, is a 24/7, 365-day-a-year, national hotline dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster.

What else can I do?

In the words of the indelible Mr. Fred Rogers,

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

Nancy Berns, Ph.D. , Freedom to Grieve writes:

“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.”

Additional Guides for Talking to Your Kids:

If you need help assisting your child with coping with tragedy or trauma, please call Champaign Counseling at 217-203-2008 to schedule a counseling session.  Jolie Carsten, Katrina Shain, and Sarah Olson offer a variety of appointment times to fit you and your family’s schedule.


Photo Credits:

Piron Guillaume Matheus Ferrero

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