Talking to Children About National Tragedies

parent and child looking at sunset on beachWhen children begin to ask questions about national tragedies, parents may be at a loss for what to say. There’s a fine line between keeping children completely ignorant about the world and giving them so much information that they’re terrified. By talking to your children about national tragedies in an age-appropriate, reassuring way, you provide them with a safe option for discussing their feelings and can help to dispel fear and increase empathy for the suffering of others.

Provide Age-Appropriate Information

The amount of information you provide your child should be determined by her age and maturity level. Very young children don’t need to know about national tragedies at all, particularly if they don’t ask. But keeping a 15-year-old in the dark about bad news may breed ignorance. If your child is old enough to carry on an intelligent conversation, follow the news, ask coherent questions, or get information about the world from people like friends and teachers, it’s time to talk to him or her about the news, especially ways in which it may affect your family.

Use words and explanations your child already understands. For explaining an act of violence to a 5-year-old, for example, you might say that a bad person harmed other people. With a ten-year-old, however, it might be appropriate to begin discussing the politics of terror. Listen to what children say, rather than trying to direct the conversation toward your topic of choice, and don’t force children to talk if they’re not ready.

Limit Media Access

When a national tragedy hits, the media tend to cover it nonstop, putting videos of an attack or photos of victims on a perpetual loop. These images can be frightening and upsetting to children, particularly children who can’t fully comprehend a national tragedy. Turn the television off and focus on uplifting activities instead. If you want your child to hear press reports, stick to reading newspaper stories or listening to radio coverage. Children who see frightening images are more likely to feel fear after a national tragedy. If your child has previously experienced a traumatic event, such as the death of a loved one or a natural disaster, your child is more likely to have a strong emotional reaction to upsetting news. In this case, you might want to cut off media access altogether.

Provide Comfort and Reassurance

Children look to their parents for comfort and protection. If you seem afraid, your child is more likely to also feel fearful. Don’t show visible fear or anxiety, but avoid making promises about how you can protect your child from harm. Instead, emphasize how rare attacks and shootings are and talk about all the things that you, your child’s school, your child’s daycare, and other caregivers are doing to keep your child safe. It’s important for children to understand that national tragedies are so catastrophic in part because they are so rare.

Find the Good Guys

Help your child find stories of people who helped others through tragedy. Not only can this help teach that there are far more good people than bad; it can also help recognize the importance of empathy. Point to firefighters who saved lives at the Boston Marathon bombing, or volunteers in other instances who have donated blood, helped with cleanup, and provided support after natural disasters. Encourage your child to look for positive news and to reflect on the good things people do every day.

Get Help

It’s normal for children to feel a little uneasy after a national tragedy, but if your child is struggling to cope, seek help from a pediatrician or a therapist. Signs that your child might need help include:

  • Frequent crying episodes
  • Panic attacks
  • Irrational fears and phobias
  • Refusing to visit previously enjoyed places
  • Withdrawing from family, friends, and activities
  • Frequent age-inappropriate tantrums or displays of anger

References:

  1. Helping children cope with tragedy related anxiety. (n.d.). Mental Health America:. Retrieved from nmha.org/go/information/get-info/coping-with-disaster/helping-children-handle-disaster-related-anxiety
  2. Talking to children about terrorism and war. (n.d.). American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Retrieved from aacap.org/page.ww?name=Talking+to+Children+about+Terrorism+and+War§ion=Facts+for+Families

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  • Ice Eskimo

    Ice Eskimo

    April 20th, 2013 at 12:08 AM

    SO hard to safeguard children from news!Its everywhere.Whether TV or the internet or their friends everybody seems to be talking about it.And from that experience with my older child I have decided to keep my younger one completely cut off from news channels and other places where such news is available until he is old enough to understand the nuances of whatever is being reported.

  • celia Johnson

    celia Johnson

    April 20th, 2013 at 11:28 AM

    It is fine to limit their exposure to these things. I don’t even let my youngest watch the evening news anymore after he looked at me and asked why bad things were always happening in our town. Not that easy to explain that there are good things that happen too but news would much rather highlight the bad than the good.

  • Lena

    Lena

    April 22nd, 2013 at 4:01 AM

    You as a parent certainly control what information they receive when they are at home, but then what happens when they leave the house and get info from the other sources that are now available to them? You can’t control every little tidbit that they get, so as a parent I think that our number one job is to let them know that they are safe and they are loved even though it seems we are all surrounded by this element of craziness and chaos. I think that many times children just need to be reassured that they are safe, and even though this might not always be the true, it is nice for them to have a place where they feel safe and free from worry, and hope that in the end all of this madness that keeps showing up will somehow pass our own family by.

  • Mary

    Mary

    April 26th, 2013 at 8:22 PM

    Thank you for this well written and much needing article! I have shared this on my Facebook page to help other parents communicate tragic events with their children.

  • Kim

    Kim

    June 14th, 2016 at 8:51 PM

    Instead of saying “bad people” wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say “people who made bad choices?”

  • Judy

    Judy

    June 18th, 2016 at 5:05 PM

    I agree!! I try to teach my family members and students that there are bad choices and anyone can make a bad choice.

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