At some point in your child’s life, they will witness or experience a tragedy. They might hear about a devastating natural disaster or a school shooting on television, or they may have direct ties to a crisis.
We can’t shield children from seeing or learning about tragic events, but we can offer comfort and support. Talking about tragedy can be very difficult, but the American Psychological Association (APA) urges parents to have these conversations. Children often learn about sad and scary events on their own and psychologists caution, “If adults don’t talk to them [children] about it, a child may overestimate what is wrong or misunderstand adults’ silence. So, be the first to bring up the difficult topic. When parents tackle difficult conversations, they let their children know that they are available and supportive.”
Tragedy and crisis can impact you, too, and it’s important to understand how you feel before trying to comfort your child. Before you have a conversation with your little ones, give yourself permission to process how you feel. This will help you stay calm and focused.
Then, brainstorm how you want to approach the topic with your kids. It can even be helpful to write down some notes and practice with another adult.
Talking about tragedy is hard for everyone, so pick a time and place that’s appropriate for such a sensitive topic.
Chatting in the car on the ride home from school probably isn’t a good idea, because you can’t provide your full attention. Before or after dinner, before bedtime routines, and weekends can all offer opportunities for quiet reflection.
Children look to adults for cues on how to react and behave. It’s okay to get emotional and share how you feel, because your kids will see that it’s possible to feel incredibly sad and confused without giving up. However, consider saving the conversation for another time if your emotions are still raw and uncontrollable.
Stick to words and ideas that your children can understand, and be careful not to overload them with too much information. If you’ve already thought about how you’ll approach the conversation, sticking to this piece of advice will be much easier.
Kids can tell when their parents are lying or withholding information, which generally leads to increased fear and confusion. This doesn’t mean you need to share graphic details, but it does mean you need to disclose every detail.