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Three Pointers For Talking Through Tragic Events With Kids

A Playbook for Talking to Kids When Tragedy Strikes

There are no easy ways to explain war and disaster to kids, but there are ways to help them feel more confident and less worried. Here’s a playbook for talking to kids when tragedy strikes.

1️⃣ The truth is scary… and better than the alternative

Tell the truth. Yes, hearing about tragedy can be upsetting and overwhelming. But when kids are able to understand the basic facts of a situation—what is and isn’t happening, and why—they feel more in control, even if it’s scary at first. Sometimes parents try to distract from these conversations in a good-faith attempt to protect kids. But that almost always backfires. Why?

Kids are perceptive. They know when something is not right. They pick up on adults talking and what’s in the news. When kids are aware that something is wrong but the adults in their lives won’t talk about it, they assume the worst, and it feels especially destabilizing. Just the fact that Mom or Dad can talk about what’s happening makes kids feel safer and protected. As the late, great Fred Rogers said, “If it’s mentionable, it is manageable.” It’s OK for them to know that you are sad, worried, and angry, too.

Speaking of Fred Rogers, his quote about “looking for the helpers” in times of tragedy is a good one. Kids need to be reminded that even in the most horrible of circumstances, people work hard to keep each other safe. Your kid needs to be reminded that they are safe, and of all the people around them who can keep it that way. When there is violence in the world, it can cause kids to worry that strangers are dangerous, so show them that most people are good, helpful, and kind.

(One caveat: while giving kids the honest truth about tragic circumstances can be best for them in the long run, images or videos of tragedy can be really jarring, so if possible, describe the situation to them without the use of TV or the internet.)

2️⃣ Before rushing in with answers, start with questions

“What have you heard about this?”

“What do you think is happening?”

“How does it make you feel?”

“Is there anything you’re worried about?”

“What questions do you have?”

Before an explanation, start with these questions. It’ll give you an opportunity to surface and clear up any misconceptions, and give you a window into what might be making your kid most worried or concerned, so you can respond to it. And while most kids feel better when they have information, it’s also possible your kid doesn’t want to know more, but you won’t know unless you ask.

3️⃣ Create a feeling of control through contribution

When violent or tragic events happen, kids can feel a powerful loss of control. It scares them that bad things can happen suddenly and unfairly (“could it happen to me?”) and upsets them that there is a terrible thing happening out of their control.

So how can you help them build back that sense of control? Finding ways to contribute in the wake of tragedy can help kids feel purposeful, proud, and safe. It teaches them that even if they can’t control what happens in the world around them, they can control how they respond and they can be a part of making the world a safer place.

Can your family volunteer for a relief effort? Could you make a donation to support humanitarian aid and can your child contribute out of their allowance or savings?

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