Talking to Children About Tragic Events

Our deepest condolences go out to the families of the victims of the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue this past weekend. This terrible crime is an attack on all of us and we send our love and support to the community of Squirrel Hill and the entire city of Pittsburgh. This latest tragedy is a reminder of how important it is to help all children cope and find comfort in difficult times.

Boston Children’s Museum Health and Wellness Educator Saki Iwamoto offers some tips to support your child in a difficult time:

When tragic events happen in the world, especially in places that relate to you, it can often be difficult to cope with these events. Parents and anyone who works closely with children have to figure out what to tell their children. I wish there was no such thing as tragedy in the world – but unfortunately, bad things happen, and we need to be prepared for them.

Children in different developmental stages understand and react differently to traumatic events. Even if they were not directly impacted by the event, they are often still aware that something unusual happened as a result of media coverage, adults’ conversations, or even slight changes in their regular routines. Children may not be able to express their concerns verbally like adults do. Instead, they may exhibit their feelings through their behavior.  Play provides children with the opportunity to express their feelings, make sense of the world, and cope with stress. So when something difficult happens in the world, make sure that children have plenty of time to play.

• Limit exposure to news coverage of disturbing events.

Closely monitor what your child is seeing on TV and reading in magazines, newspapers and Websites. Turn off the TV if it is negatively affecting your family. Kids under 6 should see little or none of the TV coverage.

• Talk to your child and provide simple, accurate information.

Don’t over-share about the traumatic events, but explain in an age-appropriate way what happened. If your child asks questions that you don’t know how to answer, it’s perfectly appropriate to say, “I don’t know” or “What do you think?”

• Reassure your child, but don’t lie.

If your child is concerned about his safety, you can tell him, “We are doing our best to keep everyone safe.” However, don’t pretend that tragic events will never happen. Instead, tell your child that these events are very rare.

• Acknowledge her feelings.

“I can see it makes you sad to think about all the people who were hurt by this event. I’m sad too.” This helps clarify everyone’s feelings and reassure that those feelings are normal.

• Maintain regular routines and provide enough opportunity to play.

Make sure that regular routines, such as meal time and bed time, are adhered to as closely as possible so that your child feels secure. As mentioned above, play helps your child to express feelings and cope with stress, although you might not see the process directly.

• Take care of yourself too.

Stress is contagious within a family, and children are incredibly adept at picking up on your emotional and behavioral cues.  At the same time, it is important for children to know that they are not alone in what they are feeling.  So find those activities that help you to ease your own stress too – maybe it’s reading a book, doing art, doing yoga, exercising, playing a game – whatever helps you to ease your mind, do it.  And invite your child to join you.  There are few things more comforting than time together as a family.


Additional Resources

Talking to Children About Tragic Events   posted by our close friends at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh

Discussing Hate and Violence with Children  a resource developed by the National PTA and Anti-Defamation League

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