How to Talk About Tragedies with Children

In the wake of the horrific shootings in Las Vegas – and because this (and other tragedies) are front and center in the news – we thought it might be helpful to share this article from our own Dr. Gramma Karen about how to talk with children about tragedies.

Our hearts go out to all the victims and their families. It is our dearest wish that we didn’t have to share this information. Again.

Grandparents Are Not Sure How to Talk about Tragedies

I am happy to say my husband and I spend a lot of time with our four young grandchildren. Here is where we could use some advice: We live in a state in which many children and adults died in a horrific school shooting carried out by a young man. We are looking for guidance on how to talk to our grandchildren when they raise questions about these kinds of shootings. This is an ongoing concern since these unfortunate events continue to happen and milestones around past events generate ongoing media coverage. 

I understand that with really young kids it’s best to not discuss the topic unless they specifically ask. But as our grandchildren get older and hear things, we anticipate that they will bring these topics up. Can you help us (and their parents) sort through the best way to frame our responses? We want our responses to be honest and age-appropriate, help teach them to be vigilant and safe – all without scaring them. This seems like quite a balancing act.

When it comes to grandchildren, parents and grandparents don’t always have to agree. For example, they can root for different sports teams, support different candidates. However, when it comes to helping young children deal with natural disasters, such as floods and hurricanes, and with abhorrent, people-caused events, such as shootings and mass murders, it is better if parents and grandparents are in lockstep with the information they share with the youngsters.

Below are some resources that might help you and your grown children provide your grandchildren with appropriate and consistent information.

If you read nothing else, I urge you to read “School Violence Prevention: Tips for Parents and Educators,” posted by the National Association of School Psychologists. This article contains comprehensive guidelines that are practical and easily implemented.

Another helpful resource is “Helping Children Deal with Tragic Events in the News: Timeless Wisdom from Fred Rogers for Parents, Caregivers and Teachers”, in which Mr. Rogers presents helpful hints for parents/grandparents that are appropriate for children of all ages, including:

  1. Do your best to keep the television off, or at least limit how much your child sees of any news event.
  2. Try to keep yourself calm. Your presence can help your child feel more secure.
  3. Give your child extra comfort and physical affection, like hugs or snuggling up together with a favorite book. Physical comfort goes a long way towards providing security. That closeness can nourish you, too.
  4. Try to keep regular routines as normal as possible. Children and adults count on familiar patterns of everyday life.
  5. Plan something that you and your child can enjoy together, like taking a walk or going on a picnic, having some quiet time together or doing something silly. It can help to know there are simple things in life that can help us feel better, both in good times and in bad.
  6. Even if children don’t mention what they’ve seen or heard in the news, it can help to ask what they think has happened. If parents don’t bring up the subject, children can be left with their misinterpretations. You may be surprised at how much your child has heard from others.
  7. Focus attention on the helpers, like the police, firemen, doctors, nurses, paramedics and volunteers. It’s reassuring to know there are many caring people who are doing all they can to help in this world.
  8. Let your child know if you’re making a donation or going to a meeting, writing a letter or e-mail of support, or taking some other action. It can help children know that adults take many different active roles…and that we don’t give in to helplessness in time of crisis.

Mr. Rogers’s core advice to parents was always to talk less and listen more, and in conversations with children about tragedies, he suggests asking children: “What do you think happened?” And then listen carefully. In addition, he urges parents to address a basic fear children have: “What will happen to me.”

I also recommend “Helping Children Deal with Violence and Tragic Events”; it contains a Sesame Street video, a list of over 20 articles for adults, and 15 books to read to children.

Another source for books to read to children is The School Library Journal; it provides summaries for several books, as well as recommended age levels.

If you do not already know, you may also want to check with your grandchildren’s schools to see what programs they have in place to deal with tragedies and threats. For example, many schools have implemented emergency lockdown or “stay put” procedures. Writing for The Child Mind Institute, Jamie Howard, Ph.D., explains the value of lockdown programs.

Discussing “stay put” procedures with children is a way to assess the children’s understanding of them, as well as provide a way to reinforce how adults are always working to provide a safe and secure environment. After a disaster or tragedy, a good strategy is to ask children what their teachers, principal, and friends have told them. Then you can then support what they’re being told and/or clear up any misinformation they may have.

I contacted Laura M. I. Saunders, Psy.D. ABPP, at the Institute of Living at the Hartford Hospital (one of the organizations Vice President Biden invited to participate in the inaugural National Conference on Mental Health, after the Sandy Hook tragedy), and invited her to share her expertise to help you and your grown children talk with your grandchildren to address the concerns you raised.

Dr. Saunders summarizes: “When tackling difficult emotional topics, the most important guideline to use is: just answer the question.  Children of all ages ask questions when they want to understand something better. Listen carefully to what your grandchild is asking; adults tend to over respond with additional information that will only confuse a child.

“If they ask about a detail regarding the tragic event, give a simple answer without additional information. You want to provide reassurance but not promises. Statements like, ‘Parents and teachers are trained to keep you safe’ will help alleviate unnecessary anxiety and worry. Don’t promise anything bad will never happen because that is not a promise any adult can keep.”

“Schools do a great job having kids practice for fire drills and other events. These practice situations are meant to lessen anxiety and worry because there is a plan in place. Gentle honesty and simplicity are the best guidelines to answer the myriad questions children ask us.”

I close by repeating Dr. Saunder’s advice on how to talk with children about crises and tragedies: Respond with gentle honesty and simplicity.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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Helping Young Parents and Grandparents Deal with Thorny Issues

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