How Do We Talk With Our Children About the Tragedies Happening Around Us

Silhouette of trees on smoke covered forest
Image credit: photo by Joanne Francis on Unsplash.

It is challenging to talk with our children about the tragedies happening in the world. The Las Vegas shootings, the Baptist church in Texas, the car bombing in Times Square and other natural disasters like hurricanes Harvey and Maria are only a few of the recent tragedies.

Even if we tried to shield our children from these events, we cannot escape what they hear on social media, and from their peers. We may want to try to protect our children from exposure and believe this will keep them safe, yet we can’t avoid these conversations without risking leaving our children feeling confused, anxious or unsafe.

They need to know they can talk to us when something bad happens. But when we may be scared out of our wits, how do we talk with our children without transmitting this fear to them? 

Start by Examining Our Feelings 

If we first examine our own feelings then we can be prepared to deal with our children’s feelings and questions. To be able to talk with our children in a way to be helpful, we must find ways to release and express our own fears in healthy ways.

It is important to let our children know that we too are feeling scared, yet not to the point that we are transferring our fear and anxiety to them. Not allowing our stuff to spill into our conversations with our children is probably the biggest challenge.

Although we are parents and want to do what is best for our children, we are only human. Working through our own fear and anxiety around this is most important before we have these conversations. While it is okay to let our children see us sad, they may not be able to understand extreme emotional reactions. 

When our children ask questions about these events, no matter what is happening, we need to be able to respond to them as close to the time they ask the question as possible so they don’t carry it with them throughout their day.

Even if they are going to be late for school, or it is bedtime, it won’t benefit them to delay or postpone answering if they are asking questions. 

Don’t Hide the Truth under a Blanket of Lies

They hear what’s happening on television, or from their peers, and they are also hearing what their peer’s parents are saying which may have been approached differently from your parenting style.

There is such a delicate balance between not lying to our children about what is happening and what could happen and sharing the truth without scaring them further. They need to be able to trust us in order to feel safe. In order to gain this trust we need to tell the truth. We clearly do not want to lie to our children.

We want to help them to understand that it is natural and human to feel afraid and not minimize this, yet not cause them further distress. 

It is vital to hold the space for our children’s fear and anxiety and allow them to speak about what they are experiencing. No matter how emotionally painful it might be for us to do so, and despite what we may be feeling inside, it is important to allow their tears, their words, their anger and provide validation.

This will help our children to release the feelings that are inside instead of stuffing them. To validate means saying something like, “I hear how scared you are. I’m right here.”  

We don’t want to say:

  • “Don’t be afraid.” 
  • “Nothing’s going to happen.”
  • “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
  • “Don’t Cry.”
  • “It’s okay.”  
  • “That will never happen.”

How Do We Talk about the Reason Behind the Tragedy?

There might be some questions that are much more difficult to answer, such as when our child asks why people commit acts of violence or terror. It is okay to say that we don’t know the answer.

Instead explain that there are people in the world that are mentally ill and have not received therapy and do violent things that are not okay. It is important to emphasize that the majority of people who suffer with mental illness are not violent, but there are those small percentage that are and that’s what’s happening.

We can also explain that there are also other people in this world who are very angry and have a lot of hate inside of them and that their hate tends to drive them to act this way. 

This is the reason that we want to share that it is important to embrace our differences and diversity regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or belief systems.

Hopefully we have already gotten to teach our children this and it is just an opportunity to reinforce this. We need to live by example. Although these conversations may be uncomfortable, we are teaching our children life lessons about fear, hope and compassion.

Talking with Our Children 

Talking with our children about tragedies is an ongoing process, not a one-time thing. The way the conversation is structured is based on the age of the child and being mindful of their mental and emotional maturity.

If they do not ask a question, start the discussion with a question. It’s very likely that they heard about the tragedy, but do not assume that they are upset. Ask about what they heard, know or read about the tragedy.

Open the conversation so they know it is ok to talk when something bad happens. Minimizing, or ignoring the situation could cause them to shut down from expressing what they need to express. 

If you do not talk about it with them, they may get even more scared or think they cannot go to you about it.

Nancy Berns Ph.D., Freedom to Grieve.

Gather information first to determine what to focus on. Talk in a manner that is age-appropriate and avoid gruesome details. A younger child may personalize the event of how it might affect them and their family while a teenager might be concerned with more global issues.

The conversation will be much broader for a younger child who might not be able to separate fantasy from reality or understand the permanence of death. Even though they may be unable to process the event, it’s important to ensure that they feel that they are truly safe.

Other Ways To Help Children Work Through Emotions

Do not assume that our children will process the events the same way we do, or that they have worked through their feelings if they do not want to discuss them.

Many children may display regressive behaviors after a tragedy as they work through their feelings. They might experience changes in their sleep, behavior and diet or have physical symptoms such as a headache or stomachache. We need to let them know that we are there to talk and to listen. 

Talking isn’t the only way we can help our children work through emotions in the wake of a tragedy. Other ways to offer support based on the age and emotional maturity of the child include to: 

  • Provide a creative outlet for expression through artwork and play.
  • Offer a sense of safety and normalcy by adhering to usual routines.
  • Limit social media exposure so they are not overwhelmed with too much information.
  • Assure them they are safe by reminding them of the physical distance from the event.
  • Discuss and update the safety plan for the family.
  • Highlight stories of the goodness that comes from tragic events and point out the everyday heroes.
  • Model kindness and compassion and find ways to help through donations or volunteering.

…By spending extra time with our children and tell them we love them.

Preparing Ourselves for Our Children

If you struggle with emotions of fear, anxiety or overwhelming sadness in the wake of recent tragedies, speaking with a trusted psychotherapist at Nassau Guidance & Counseling located on Long Island can help.

Our licensed therapists have helped many people find methods to work through uncomfortable emotions so that they feel more capable talking with their children about tragedy, fear and loss. 

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