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How to Talk to Your Children About Tragic Events

All parents hope to shield their children from the knowledge that bad things happen in the world for as long as possible. Unfortunately, protecting your children from this knowledge isn't possible forever.

Frequently, children learn about violent and tragic events from their friends as well as from television. These tragedies can confuse and frighten children if they don’t think they can discuss them openly. Limiting exposure to the news may be helpful; however, parents can do so much more to help their children feel safe and secure.

What and how much do you say to children? How do you know they want or need to talk? How can you get them to open up to you about their fears? 

NorthShore mental health therapists recommend that parents:

  • Watch children closely. Some children, especially younger children, might not express their anxieties with words but might exhibit signs of anxiety or worry like changes in behavior, sleep and appetite.
  • Allow them to ask the questions. By allowing them to ask the questions, children will move at a pace and level of discussion that is comfortable for them. It will also be an indicator to you of how much they need or are developmentally prepared to know.
  • Encourage kids to write or draw their feelings. For some children talking about their feelings might not come easily. Children might be more comfortable writing down or drawing pictures that express their feelings. You can communicate through the work they produce. 
  • Provide as much comfort as possible. Let children know that they are safe both with words and your behavior. Children look to parents and authority figures for cues on how to react to a situation. If you are upset, it is okay to show your own emotions. Make sure to process and seek support for your own feelings so that you can better provide comfort to your children. Also remind them that there are police, firefighters and other adults keeping them safe too.
  • Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know." You won’t have all the answers. Just like children, adults experience confusion and fear in the wake of a traumatic event. By saying, “I don’t know,” you are telling your children that it is okay to be confused because you are too.

How do you discuss difficult topics with your children?