How to Talk to Kids About Tragedy and Calm Their Worries

How do we talk to kids about a tragedy so they understand the event and feel that they will thrive? Whether it’s the Capitol Insurrection, a shooting, a bombing, or natural disaster, all of us are trying to make sense of the unimaginable and trying to find a way to help our kids copes. Here are tips about how to talk to kids about any tragedies to help you have a most difficult, but necessary conversation. Gauge the pointers to the age, temperament, maturity and cognitive abilities of your child. My “TALK Model” may help you remember the four important parts to talking about any tragedy with a child. Remember that the key is that the adult must display calmness and confidence. Only then will a child take our words to heart and be more hopeful and thrive.

T.A.L.K. Strategy to Discuss Tragedy With Kids

T – TALK about the tragic event Ensure that your child has accurate information that come straight from you.

A – ASSESS how  child is coping, Tune into your child’s feelings and behavior. Watch and listen how he deals with the event so you’ll know how to help him cope and build resilience. Every child handles a tragedy differently. There is no predicting.

L – LISTEN to concerns and questions. Use the “Talk. Stop. Listen. Talk. Stop. Listen” model as you converse. Listen more than your talk. Answer what you can. Follow your child’s lead.

K – KINDLE hope that despite the horror the world will go on. Help your children realize though there is tragedy, evil and horror there is also goodness, compassion and hope.

Now you can use the following tips in any order in your conversation. Remember that any talk about a troubling event is not a one-time chat. Children take time to process. Instead, use

10 Tips to Talk To Kids About A Tragedy

1. Keep yourself strong and calm.

Resilient children have resilient parents. Don’t expect to be able to help allay your kids’ anxiety, unless you’re keeping your own in check.  You can tell your kids you’re calm and not concerned, but unless your behavior sends the same message, your words have no meaning. Your kids mirror your behavior. They will be calmer if you are calmer. You need to be strong for your children. Let your children know you’re upset, but also what you’re doing to stay calm. Mediate. Take a walk. Listen to soothing music. Do deep breathing. Exercise. Journal your feelings. Show your child how you cope so that he will have a model to copy

2. Talk in age appropriate terms.

News is a 24-hour cycle these days. Any news event about a ttragedy will be played and replayed as details emerge.Chances are he will hear about this tragedy. Peers do talk, televisions are left on for snippets to be overheard, newspapers lay around, the Internet is a constant source of news. More often than not those facts your child receives about a tragedy won’t be accurate and can fuel anxiety. Kids need hear the facts, and you are  their best source.Here are strategies that may you use T.A.L.K. as you talk about a  tragedy with your child.

Plan your chat. This will be a difficult talk, so take time to plan what you want to say to your child. Think through your lines. Anticipate your child’s questions (though you never know what may be asked so be prepared for anything). Planning your discussion will help boost your confidence and make you appear calmer.

Find out what they know. Peers talk. Cell phones access the Internet. Access to news is everywhere. Begin any talk by getting on the same page as your child so you can direct the conversation accordingly. “What do you know?’ or “What have you heard?” are good openers.

Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answer. None of us do. It’s okay to tell your child: “I don’t know, but I’ll find that out.” Or “Great question. Let’s find that answer together. Where can we look?” Keep in mind that kids usually ask only what they can understand.

Use a kid-oriented talk framework. You’ll be altering your talking points to your child’s age and maturity. Your discussion can be as long or as short as your child needs. Kids don’t need all the horrific details. For instance, give only information that is needed or asked. “Yes, people died.” But you don’t have to describe the types of injuries, etc. Children can be literal. (“Rapid fire” connotes a fire to a child) so try to think like your child.

Give information in short nuggets. Talk in small little doses–instead of a lecture format.  Don’t explain more than your child is ready to hear. Don’t give out details that your child doesn’t need to know.

Honor silence. Your child may be trying to process what you’re saying. This is a lot to take in so allow time for your child to process the information. This is a difficult topic.

Answer questions matter-of-factly. You never know what may be asked or not asked so be prepared for anything. “Why did he shoot those kids?” is one of the toughest questions. Answer based on your beliefs but don’t give kids the view that’s how all people are. You can also flip and ask: “What do you think?”

Keep the conversation going. Let your child know you’re available to talk at any time or any place. Tell him, “You may have other questions, so come to me!” Let him know this is an ongoing conversation–if he so chooses.

Use a safe starter. A safe way to begin a conversation is to ask: “What are your friend saying?”  Don’t assume because your kid is older or isn’t saying anything he isn’t affected by this. Many kids will hold in their concerns which is why you should initiate the conversation. You might also want to ignite that social justice element in your tween or teen: “What do you think our country should do?” Spark the conversation about gun laws. Talk about rights. Teens can get passionate. Listen. Let your kid talk and empower them.

Assure safety. A prime concern of children is their own safety. Young kids are egocentric so don’t be surprised if their big worries appear “self-centered.” A young child may think: “What about me?” “Is he coming to get me, too?” Young children do not have an understanding of time or space. “That happened way far away.” Or “That happened in the next town.”  Let your child know what action your community is taking to assure safety: “The teachers, police and doctors are all working hard to keep us safe.” While you can’t promise safety, you can assure your child that everyone is doing everything to keep kids safe because people care.

3. Tune into feelings and validate them.

Kids respond differently to tragic news so  follow your child’s lead. Children need to know that it is okay to share their feelings with you and that it’s normal to be upset. Give permission to use feelings. Help her find healthy ways to express his concerns. Feel free to express your own sorrow or feelings: “Yes, I’m upset.” “I feel so sad for the families.” What’s most important is letting your child know you are available to listen. There are no hard rules, but here are things to consider about a tragedy as to which children are more likely to be affected but here are things to consider.

• The closer in proximity a child is to the physical event – (for instance, you live in Florida where the hurricane hit or you have relatives there or the child witnessed a grandparent struggle during COVID), the more likely the child will be affected.

• If the child personally knows the victim, the more likely he will be be affected.

• If the child is more sensitive or anxious in nature.

• If the child has endured a recent trauma such as a parent’s deployment, a divorce, a death.

• If the child identifies with the victim (such as same age, gender, or other characteristic).

• A child can also seem fine now but display emotional signs later.

• The child may also be unaffected by an event.

4. Provide accurate age appropriate information.

Always tailor the facts to your child’s level of understanding and give only those details that he needs to know.The American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry offers these tips:

Preschool. Don’t assume that your child has not heard about this event. And don’t be surprised if he keeps asking the same questions even if you’ve turned the television off. Young children are remarkably perceptive. They often ask the same questions repeatedly as a way to process information. Calmly answer and be brief in your responses. And let them know that they can ask as often as they need. Don’t let children watch a lot of TV. Repetition of events are disturbing.Young children do not have context, and may assume that the event is happening next door or in their community.

Ages 5 to 9: This age is curious and trying to make sense of such as tragedy. Questions might include. “Why do people kill? Why did that boy want to kill those kids?” “Why are people so mean?” Be honest if you don’t know. And don’t be turned off by those questions. You want your kids to ask, and keep asking.

Ages 10 to 12: They may not want to chat but it doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about the tragedy. An opener such as: “What are your friends saying?” may begin the conversation.

Age 13 and over: This age may try to minimize the event or argue more with you then want to discuss what happened. Because victims were teens this age may also be more affected. Tune in. Most teens can be involved in discussions about the news and stimulating conversations can result. Teachers, coaches, scout masters, camp directors may be discussing this with your tween or teen so you can spin off: “What have you heard?” Or use a newspaper clipping about the tragedy to begin the conversation. One of the best ways to reduce stress is to help a teen find agency: a way to solve the problem. 

5. Limit or monitor troubling news. 

With news showing such horrific images, it’s especially important to monitor how much about this tragedy your kids are watching. If your kids do watch the news, watch with them to answer their questions and certainly limit exposure. Don’t assume that your older child will not be affected by the news. Seeing repeated violent images exacerbates existing anxiety and can increase anxiety and fear in some kids.Viewing images of grief could also re-trigger feelings of sadness in kids who have recently dealt with grief. Images of a tragedy can increase aggression in some kids.A survey of middle school children found that one of their biggest fears was those late-breaking news reports without an adult there to interpret it for them. Research also shows that younger children do not have the cognitive understanding to recognize that the televised images they are seeing or hearing may be repeats. Instead, they assume the event they are watching is happening live. For instance, each time young children saw the televised images of the planes hitting the World Trade Center towers they assumed the event was live.

So, limit your child’s news access over the next few days or turn off the television. Plop in a video that you know will not have interrupted news broadcasts. Stories providing such graphic details about the shooting scene or the medical condition of victims or how they died can induce stress. If your kids do watch the news, watch with them. Be there to answer their questions and comfort them.

6. Comfort kids with family activities.

In times of stress, kids needs to feel embraced by their family. That’s why it’s a good idea to spend plenty of time doing things together over the weekend—it helps her feel safe and sends a “We’re all in this together” message. Find tension-releasing activities the entire family can do together. For instance, go for walks or bike rides, pray or meditate, listen to soothing music or watch humorous videos. And engage in—or create—comforting family traditions: attend a religious service, do family hugs, or light a nightly candle to convey your sorrow.

7. Stick to routines

One of the best ways to alleviate anxiety is to stick to your normal routines. It is comforting and soothing to kids to know that life is normal—even though the news is giving them quite a different message. So stick to your routines. It sends a clear message that even during a tragedy , parents keep going to work, kids continue going to school, and the world will go on.

8. Tune into anxious kids 

Watch your more sensitive child closer or your child who may have experienced a recent trauma during these next days or weeks. Trauma could be the death of a loved one, COVID, severe bullying, the deployment of a parent, experiencing a flood, fire, illness, or severe weather. Certain kids are more vulnerable to anxiety or heightened stress during such tragedies.  Of course, you never know how any child – regardless of age – will respond. It’s why it’s important for you to be available. If you see anxiety, stress and pessimism, linger, become more pronounced, spill over into other areas of your child’s life and you worry that it may be depression please call for the help of a mental health professional.

9. Do something proactive as a family

One of the best ways to reduce feelings of anxiety is to help kids find proactive ways to allay their fears. It also empowers kids to realize they can make a difference in a world that might appear scary or unsafe. If your teen is upset, encourage him to write to his congressman. Tweet out his concerns. Get a group of kids together and discuss what can be done. Channeling fears and frustrations into positive activism can be healing and may even galvanize change.

10. Point out the heroism and the helpers

Please also draw your child’s attention to stories of heroism and compassion: teachers, National Guard, police, ambulance drivers, parents, paramedics, doctors–everyone who was there to try to help. Point out those wonderful simple gestures of compassion, love and hope that people are doing for one another. Find those stories of compassion in the newspaper and share them with your family.

Ask your child to watch for little actions of kindness they see others do and report them at the dinner table from now own. Many families call those “Good News Reports.”

11. Help your child learn to cope and grieve

Now is the time to help your child adopt your religious beliefs or instill your values. Do what you believe with your children. For instance: Pray as a family. Attend a service together. Light candles together. Doing so is empowering to a child. Your ritual will help them cope now but also know how to handle grief on a more personal issue later.

It’s so important to assure your children that there’s more to the world than violence, tragedy and fear. There is also compassion, and love, and hope.  Help your child see the world as a hopeful place.Your actions can make a big difference in helping send that message. And our children deserve that message.

Now go hug your kids!

For more evidence-based ways to help children cope, refer to my new book, Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine (March 2021). It explains why the old markers of accomplishment (grades, test scores) are no longer reliable predictors of success in the 21st century — and offers 7 teachable strengths that boost resilience and will safeguard our kids for the future. I hope you like it!

Best! Michele

Dr. Michele Borba

Follow me on twitter  @MicheleBorba