Children and Tragic Events
Talking to your kids about the news
By Annette Benedetti
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.’” – Fred Rogers
The attacks on Paris, Isis, and school shootings are subjects that fill the news feeds and reach the public online, through the radio, and on TV. They are terrifying to adults and fill us with fear even though we, for the most part, have healthy coping mechanisms in place to help us process the information and carry on with our lives. But what happens when these stories reach young ears? What do we do and say when our children come to us with questions about what they mean and how these events affect them?
Regardless of how hard you try to monitor what your children watch, listen to, and read in an effort to filter out content that is too intense for them, it is impossible to protect them from all of the big, frightening, and often tragic events that take place in our local and global communities. The best way to help them understand and cope with tragic news is by being prepared ahead of time and having a plan in place.
In her article, If the Kids Ask About Paris, Jill Kaufmann LMFT, counselor at Deschutes County Behavioral Health, says, “…don’t worry about having all of the answers. Most kids aren’t looking for long explanations.” She suggests asking them open-ended questions that encourage the conversation and allow you to find out what they have heard, what they are thinking, and how they are feeling. Some examples she gives of these types of questions are, “What do you think about the terror attacks in France?” and “What are kids at school saying about all this?”
Once you have a good understanding of what your child has heard and what they know, give them the facts in an abbreviated, easy to digest manner. Give them context by letting them know that while these events are upsetting, similar events have taken place in the past and that there are “helpers” trained to deal with them while keeping people safe and solutions available that can be reached. Keep these explanations simple so that your child can understand them on their level, which will help ease their anxiety.
Acknowledging your child’s feelings and reassuring them is important. Tell them that you can see that they are worried, sad, or confused. Legitimize their feelings and let them know that they have every reason to feel the way they do, and then reassure them by letting them know that they are safe. If possible, point out the safety measures that have been taken and all of the things that are in place that ensure their wellbeing and protection, but do not lie.
Kaufmann points out the importance of making sure that you are calm before you talk to your child. She suggests waiting until you feel composed if you have been emotionally impacted by the event and says, “Children often watch a parent’s reaction to get insight on just how concerned they should be. If they see a traumatized parent, then they are going to be much more worried and scared.” So take some deep breaths and try to project a sense of calm and confidence.
Finally, give your kids a sense of control by opening a discussion about what they can do to help or make a difference. Let them come up with things they can do to feel safer, or ways they can help people affected directly or indirectly by the events in the news. Often times there are opportunities to donate, volunteer, or pay tribute. Helping your child participate in these activities can help them feel less vulnerable and afraid.