Talking to Your Child About Tragedy

What you tell your children and how much you tell children can be challenging to navigate.

Raising three little girls is no easy task, and I spend countless hours preparing them for issues that may arise in their worlds. By far, one of the most painful things I have ever had to teach my daughter was what to do in the event of an active shooter in her school in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

As our country reels from yet another school shooting, many families are having difficulty finding the right words to explain what this means for their children. What you tell your children and how much you tell children can be challenging to navigate, particularly because you are likely not the only source of information for them.

Depending on their age, they may be processing information from family, friends and neighbors; the news, including TV, newspapers, and magazines; and the internet, which often displays false information that is perpetuated by social media. However, you must remember that you will always be their favored and most trusted source.

So what, and how, should you tell your children?

  1. Secure your own oxygen mask before securing your child’s: First, take a moment to care for yourself. Your child will remember your reaction and emotions far more than your words. Be sure to discuss tragic incidents when you are calm.
  2. Emphasize safety and security: Tell your child she will be O.K. With the country’s reaction so visible, your child will be most concerned with what will happen to her world. Do your best to explain what you have done in your own home (securing locks, installing an alarm system) and the school has done (locked doors, secure entry) to keep her safe.
  3. Take a news break: Young children will benefit from a break from current events. Spending quality time together as a family will provide reassurance and security. When you are watching news, be sure to watch together and discuss what you see with your child. Avoid graphic images and sounds. Older children and teens will need help understanding what is true and what is not on the internet and in social media.
  4. Listen and ask questions: Because of extensive media coverage, your child has likely learned of a tragedy. Ask your child what he has heard from others and if he is worried or scared. It is best for your child to hear honest information from you and not friends or media. Be sure to remain open-minded to all comments and allow him to finish his thoughts before addressing them. Depending upon your child’s age, you may create your responses to his questions differently, but it is always important to be direct and honest and to emphasize that you are keeping him safe and are always available to talk and answer questions.
  5. Know the signs: Children don’t often come out and tell you that they are having difficulty coping with a tragedy. Rather, they often have difficulty with sleep, problems in behavior, vague physical symptoms such as headaches, changes in appetite, or emotional problems such as depression or anxiety. Keep an eye out for these issues and bring them up to your pediatrician or a mental health professional if you have noticed them in your child.

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