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Be Aware, Be Open, and Do What Matters

As much as we don’t want to expose our kids to tragedy, sometimes tragedy finds them. Kids hear about terrorism, bombings, and other tragedies through the news, through social media, and from their classmates at school. In the wake of senseless violence, such as the recent school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on February 14, a first instinct may be to shield kids from information by avoiding the topic entirely in the service of protecting them from more fear or pain. It’s easy to think that it’s better for kids not to know about something that adults also often struggle to understand. 

So is it better to avoid talking to kids about tragedy?

No. Talking to your kids can reassure them and make them feel safe. By not talking to kids about tragedy, you risk them finding out about it from other sources – increasing the possibility of them misunderstanding the situation, getting inaccurate information, or increasing the anxiety, sadness, confusion, or anger they might be experiencing.  

“As difficult as it is to talk to children about tragedy in the world, it is necessary,” said Dr. Sean O’Dell, Ph.D., Geisinger pediatric psychologist. “If a child finds out about a tragic situation and doesn’t have an open dialogue with their parents about it, it can increase anxiety and stress and make it more difficult to adjust. Kids take their cues on how to handle strong feelings from the adults in their lives, so being responsive to your child’s unique needs is among the most important things you can do.”

Here are 3 tips to help talk to your kids about tragedy:

1. Be Aware
Awareness is the first step. Awareness of how children are responding to learning of a tragedy, as well as awareness of its impact on you as a parent. Tragic events have an impact on all of us, as does seeing our children in distress. 

Children often respond to the same events in different ways than adults. For instance, children may not come out and tell you how they are feeling even though they are having a hard time regulating their emotions and choices. Children may show they are affected through changes in appetite, sleep, or irritability. When kids “shut down”, “melt down”, or “freeze up”, these are all signs that they may be experiencing strong emotions they are having a hard time handling.

You can also take steps to make yourself more aware of how your children have been exposed to the tragedy. Sometimes, kids already know more than you think. From what they see on TV to what they hear from others, kids may start forming an idea of what happened well before you speak with them and it’s important to meet them where they’re at. 

Talk to your kids and see what they understand already. An important thing is to see if they misunderstood anything about the situation. Clarifying any misunderstandings about the situation can help keep their imagination from running wild. The National Association of School Psychologists suggests this is especially important for youth in upper elementary and early middle school. Younger children will likely respond better to a clear, concise message that it is normal to feel the way they are feeling, their homes and schools are safe, and adults are there to protect them. Adolescents are more likely to be more interested in discussing concrete steps they can take to keep themselves safe and who they can reach out with to gain support in meeting their emotional needs.

2. Be Open
To engage with a child in a productive discussion about such charged situations as tragedies requires an openness in adults to their own discomfort, worries that they may not “say the right thing”, and a willingness to see their child experiencing discomfort. It also requires making the time to talk, perhaps in small doses over the course of several days or even weeks after a tragedy. 

Being patient, listening in a curious way, and having the goal in mind to truly understand your child’s perspective before making recommendations or corrections to the facts can help show your child that you are open to whatever they may share. At the same time, a sense of openness in a difficult conversation may look different for different families. Be the authentic “you”- kids can tell when you’re not.

This can be easier said than done. Seeing your children in distress can be incredibly difficult. When we have empathy for what others are enduring it brings up pain for us, too. The tendency can be to want to avoid this pain or dismiss it. However, to truly reassure your child and make them feel safe, you must turn towards this discomfort and be in it with them. Modeling this bravery first can help kids see that facing scary or confusing feelings is the first step to working through them. Connecting with your values as a parent can be helpful in hanging in there and give you a reason to face these difficult conversations with openness. Engaging with a mental health professional at school or in the community can also be a helpful way to navigate these challenging conversations, and seeking help is a smart choice.

3. Do What Matters
Of course, it is also important to take practical steps to move on after a tragedy. Openness is important, and so is taking commonsense action such as limiting your child’s exposure to media coverage, ensuring that you maintain your normal daily routines, and reviewing strategies to keep themselves safe at home, school, and in the community.

Help children limit their exposure to media that can show tragic events. For older children with more access to news, help them understand reliable news sources so that they get the full story. Encourage them to fact-check what they see on social media. 

“For small children, I would recommend very strict limits on media consumption following a tragedy,” said Dr. O’Dell. “When children are consuming media, be sure to supervise them and limit what they can see based on how appropriate the content is for their age group. Watch TV as a family to avoid them seeing tragic news by themselves.”

Finally, do not hesitate to reach out to your child’s school to learn about safety procedures in place and what is being done to teach these procedures to your child. At home, emphasize the importance of staying away from guns and other weapons. If guns are in your home, ensure that they are stored in a locked gun safe separately from ammunition. It is important that you communicate to your child that adults are the right people to tell if they feel unsafe. They should not let concerns of “tattling” get in the way of sharing these safety concerns.

Pediatric psychologist Sean O'Dell, PhD, sees patients at Geisinger Bloomsburg Psychiatry. To schedule an appointment with Dr. O'Dell, call 800-275-6401 or visit Geisinger.org

Mother talking to her daughter