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Talking with children about tragedies

Stephen Miller, MD

When traumatic events happen, it’s natural for parents to struggle with what information to share with their kids. Wildfires, acts of violence, and other disasters can be hard to make sense of—even for adults. Following are some ideas for tackling these difficult conversations:

Ask the first question

Children often know when something sad or scary happens. If adults don’t talk to them about it, children may overestimate what is wrong or misunderstand adults’ silence. Be the first to bring up the difficult topic. When parents tackle tough conversations, they let their children know that they are available and supportive.

Start by asking kids what they’ve already heard. No matter what age or developmental stage children are, most of them will have heard something. Listen closely to their response. Ask what questions they have, and then listen more. Allowing children to talk helps them feel heard and gives you the information you need to guide the conversation.

Tell the truth

Lay out the facts at a level children can understand. It’s best to share basic information, not graphic or unnecessary details. Kids just need to understand enough to know what’s going on. This is especially true with young children. If you do want kids to watch the news, consider recording it ahead of time. That allows you to preview it and evaluate the content. Then, sit down to watch it with them, stopping to have a discussion when you need to.

Older children will have access to the news and images through social media and their phones and tablets. Be aware of what’s out there and take steps in advance to talk to children about what they might hear or see. Children this age may ask more questions or benefit more from additional information. But no matter what age the child is, it’s best to keep the dialogue straightforward and direct. It is okay to acknowledge your feelings with your children. Seeing you be upset, pull yourself together, and continue on, is an important lesson in resilience. You are their emotional role model.

Reassure them

Repeat the message: Bad things happen, but there are good people out there helping and we’re strong enough to get through it. Point out the good things everyday citizens are doing. Look for specific ways people are pitching in to help one another. This can show your child that the majority of people want to treat others with kindness.

Tell your children that you will do everything you can to keep them safe and watch out for them. Focus on the steps that police officers, government officials, and first responders are taking to protect people. This can help reduce children’s anxiety. Be available to answer any questions or talk about this topic again in the future. Make sure to hug your kids and tell them you love them. Spend time playing, reading, praying, and doing other activities together.

Empower them

Empower your kids to become helpers. Discuss how they can take positive action in the wake of a tragic event. Encourage them to write a thank you note to a firefighter or donate some allowance money to relief efforts—these gestures can go a long way toward helping kids see that they can always take steps to make the world a little better. Kids who feel like they have some control are less likely to feel helpless.

Take care of yourself

Talking about and experiencing difficult news and tragedies can be exhausting. Don’t forget to take care of yourself: Turn off the news. Take a break. Engage in physical activity. Do something that will lift your spirits and those of your family.

Seek professional help

These tips and strategies can help you guide your children through a crisis. If you are feeling stuck or overwhelmed, or if your child shows persistent signs of stress or agitation—such as sleep problems or persistent physical complaints—consider talking to someone who can help. A licensed mental health professional, such as a psychologist, can assist you in developing an appropriate strategy for moving forward.

Dr. Stephen Miller is a pediatrician at Vancouver Clinic. He enjoys working with families to support the physical and emotional health of their children.