How to Talk to Kids About Tragedy

9 tips to guide you

mother hugging daughter with concern

The relentless images of acts of terrorism and other tragedies pour out to kids on TV, computers, cellphones. The kids seem overwhelmed and may be struggling, like all of us, to make sense of it all.

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Talking to your kids about tragedies, violence and terrorism can be difficult, but it’s important. It can help your children feel more secure and understand more about the world, too.

Answering your children’s questions

Child psychiatrist Mackenzie Varkula, DO, agrees it’s important to talk with your children about tragedies, but don’t make them talk about it until they’re ready.

When they are ready to talk, here are 9 tips to guide you: 

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  1. Use words and concepts that are easily understandable. Talk in a way that’s appropriate to their age and level of understanding. But don’t overload the child with too much information.
  2. Be honest with your answers and information. “Children can usually sense if you’re not being honest,” says Dr. Varkula. “It’s not comforting if they think you’re not being straight with them.”
  3. Be ready to repeat yourself or have more than one conversation. “Some information can be very confusing and hard to accept,” says Dr. Varkula. “Your child asking the same question over and over may be a way of looking for reassurance.” Do be consistent and reassuring, but don’t make unrealistic promises that nothing bad could ever happen.
  4. Acknowledge and support your child’s concerns. Let your child know that his feelings, reactions and questions relating to a tragedy are important — don’t dismiss them as “childish.”
  5. Don’t stereotype groups of people by race, nationality or religion. This is a good opportunity to teach tolerance and explain that while all these acts are terrible and scary, all types of people commit them.
  6. Be a role model. “Kids learn from watching the grown-ups in their lives and want to know how you respond to events,” Dr. Varkula says. “They learn by listening to you talk to other adults.” 
  7. Don’t let small children keep watching violent images. “Turn off the TV while there’s still heavy media coverage of an event,” says Dr. Varkula. “Repetitive, upsetting images with explosions, people running and smoke filling the air can be disturbing, especially to young children.”
  8. Coordinate between home and school. Parents should know about how tragic events are discussed at school, and teachers should know about the child’s specific fears or concerns.
  9. Give extra support to kids who’ve had their own trauma or losses. “These kids may have more intense reactions to tragedies or terrorist acts,” Dr. Varkula says. “Give them extra attention.”

It’s understandable that young children will react to traumatic events like 9/11, the Syria chemical attacks, the Boston Marathon bombings or Sandy Hook shootings with confusion and anxiety. Parents, teachers and other adults can help by listening and responding honestly and consistently.