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How to Talk to Your Children About Tragedies

Published in Behavioral Health Services, Pediatrics, For the Health of It Author: Barbara Skodje Mack,EdD,LMFT,LPCC

In the wake of tragic events, there will be difficult conversations as we all — children, parents, grandparents, educators and community members — try to grapple with not only what happened, but why. Communication is key to helping our children. Here are some resources on how to talk to children about tragedies. And never hesitate to reach out to your health care provider for more guidance and resources to help us cope together.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages parents, teachers, childcare providers, and others who work closely with children to be honest but filter information about events and present it in a way that their child can understand, adjust to and cope with. The AAP shares specific tips for talking to very young children, children with developmental delays and children on the autism spectrum. Learn more.

  1. Find out what your children have heard already. Gently correct any misinformation in simple, clear, age-appropriate language.
  2. No matter what age your child is, it’s best to keep the dialogue straightforward and direct. Not talking about it may make your child think that it’s too horrible to discuss.
  3. Avoid graphic details and exposure to media. With older children, preview the news before you watch it with them. As you watch it together, pause it and have discussions about it.
  4. Be a good role model. Express your sadness and empathy for the victims and their loved ones. Share your appreciation for the first responders and people who are helping the community that is affected.
  5. Watch for signs that a child might not be coping well:
    – Sleep problems such as falling asleep or nightmares
    – Physical complaints such as headaches or changes in appetite
    – Changes in behavior such as acting more immature or being clingy
    – Emotional problems such as depression or anxiety

It can be hard to tell if your child is having problems coping and may need extra support. If you have concerns, talk to your child’s physician or a mental health professional.