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How To Talk To Your Kids About Tragedy — Personal or Public

These days, the world can be an extra-scary place for kids. In addition to smaller, personal tragedies like losing a beloved pet or relative, the news is full of frightening images and grim reports about terrorist attacks, hate crimes, and natural disasters. As a parent, what’s the best way to answer your kids’ questions?

Block, or Filter?
Some parents will choose not to discuss disasters that happen in the world at large at all. They want to shield their children, especially the youngest, from knowing about certain awful events. However, if your child is out in the world, interacting with other people and being exposed to media, that can be tricky. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents, teachers, childcare providers, and others who work closely with children to filter information—and try to tailor its delivery to each child, based on their knowledge of what that child can accommodate, adjust to, and cope with.

Different Rules for Different Ages
If a child shows any curiosity about what is going on, ask them what they’ve heard and whether they have any questions. You can help clarify information and hopefully calm their fears.

Older children, teens, and young adults might ask more questions and require additional information, but for all ages, try to keep the discussion as straightforward and direct as possible. Avoid graphic information, details, and images as much as possible—you’ll probably have to limit exposure to the TV, computer, and smartphones or tablets. After they’ve gone to school after a national tragedy, ask what they’ve heard. They may have new fears or questions or be confused by misinformation.

What About Tragedy Close to Home?
It can be even more difficult to talk to your kids about a tragedy that directly affects them, such as the death of a family member, classmate, or pet. Keep in mind both your child’s age and developmental level when talking about the topic. Children of 8 or 9 and younger may not truly understand the concept of death or abstract phrases like “passed away.” Keep the facts simple, saying things like “We won’t see Grandpa anymore,” even if that seems harsh. Present these facts in as warm and supportive of a framework as you can, reassuring them that their feelings are okay. Your religious beliefs may also come into play here. Older children can handle more information, but again, don’t tell them anything they don’t ask about; encourage them to ask questions and be thoughtful with your answers.

Is Your Child Coping Okay?
Even if you’re helping your kids by talking to them and teaching them how to cope, you may see signs that they’re having difficulty:

  • Sleep problems, including trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, difficulty waking, nightmares, or sleepwalking.
  • Physical complaints, such as headaches, stomachaches, tiredness, or changes in eating habits.
  • Behavioral changes, like social regression, clinginess, impatience or demanding attitude. In teens, look for signs of tobacco, alcohol, or substance use.
  • Emotional changes, like excessive sadness, depression, anxiety, or new fears.

If you’re concerned that despite your best efforts, your child is suffering undue fear or anxiety after a tragedy, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Start with your child’s pediatrician.