Talking to kids about tragedy

Picture from behind showing a young child riding a red tricycle on a leaf covered roadl

How to Help Your Children Cope with Tragedies and Scary News Stories

As a parent, you may feel the need to protect your children from the darkness in the world. It’s wise to limit their exposure, especially to scary-sounding news stories on TV, radio, or computers. However, it’s important to be the one to help your kids learn how to handle their questions, fears, and uncertainties.

Today’s kids are exposed to far more information than previous generations. The internet puts the most traumatic images and stories right at their fingertips, and children talk on the playground. Tragedies like 9/11, war, and mass shootings are just a few examples of what kids may hear about.

Children often express their feelings through their behavior and moods since they may not be able to put their feelings into words effectively. Look for red-flag patterns such as nightmares, crying spells, a shift in mood or personality, frequent headaches or stomach aches, and hesitation to attend school or other activities.

Sometimes, children are afraid because they hear that school shootings and other tragedies are becoming more frequent. It’s important to challenge this information and reassure your kids that they are safe and that these kinds of tragedies are rare and not the norm.

Most kids just need to know that they can talk about their concerns and ask questions. After a few days of processing and steering clear of overexposure, kids are usually able to return to normalcy. Don’t hesitate to talk to a counselor or mental health professional if you’re unsure how to help your child.

Here are some best practices from the National Mental Health Association on how to talk to kids about tragedy, with specific tips for each age group:

For younger children:

  • Encourage them to talk about their concerns and express their feelings.
  • Talk on their level and use language they can understand.
  • Validate their feelings and let them know they are not alone.
  • Empower them to take action regarding school safety, such as reporting incidents and developing problem-solving skills.
  • Discuss the safety procedures that are in place at their school and create safety plans with your child.

For older children:

  • Recognize behavior that may indicate your child is concerned about returning to school, such as not wanting to attend school or participate in school-based activities.
  • Encourage open dialogue and make school safety a common topic in family discussions.
  • Seek help when necessary by contacting a mental health professional at school or your community mental health center.

Remember, it’s essential to be there for your child and help them understand the world around them. By following these best practices and staying informed, you can help your child cope with tragedies and scary news stories.

Source: National Mental Health Association.

Tips for Talking to Children and Teens about Tragic Events

Tips for Kids Under 6 Years Old

Keep it simple and age-appropriate. Focus on the positive to help them process without fear. For example, “A bad person who was very sick hurt some people; but you are safe with us and they have the bad man.”

Tips for Elementary School Age Kids

Keep the message simple and safe. Decide if you want to instill fear or reassurance in the child. Reassurance is the answer. Make sure the message is easily understood by the child’s age group. Focus on the positive, like the heroes of the day, and how safe we are because of them. Shield them from disturbing images as children have vivid imaginations that are primarily visual. If they do see such images, show them more positive images or take them to meet first responders to create a real-life connection with heroism.

Tips for Talking to Tweens

Stephen Covey’s quote, “Seek to understand before seeking to be understood,” applies here. Allow tweens to voice their doubts and questions. Answer their questions and impart wisdom, but be sure to listen to what they think and feel. Use their questions and comments as a starting point for a conversation about values and how to be a hero. Avoid graphic details.

Some of the tips below for teens will also apply. Trust your intuition.

Tips for Talking to Teens

Be solution-focused, not problem or judgment focused. Teenagers are practicing making independent decisions to control the direction of their lives. Harness this drive to find solutions by asking for their ideas about how to make a difference in the world. This approach builds their character and gives them a sense of control over circumstances that were out of their control.

If you have any questions, please get in touch. I am here to help.

Learn more about Counseling for Trauma and PTSD in Austin.

Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan has completed Level-2 of the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling, and in 1998 received training from the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.


© Copyright 2023 - Gate Healing, PLLC - All Rights Reserved. Material provided on this website is for educational and/or informational purposes only. Direct consultation with a qualified licensed health care provider, licensed professional counselor, or psychotherapist should be sought as necessary for any specific questions or problems. This site should not be construed as offering either medical advice or online professional service; no therapeutic relationship with a licensed professional counselor is established by use of this site. Please do not send emails to this site or anyone associated with it that may include confidential information.