Words that Work: Kids and Tragedy

It’s horrific. It’s scary. And it’s hard to know what to say, or what not to say, to our kids.

When tragic events happen in our world, like Columbine, 9/11, or the latest disaster in Colorado’s movie theatre, they stop us in our tracks. They imprint on our brains and our kids’ brains.

When 9/11 happened, my oldest daughter had just turned five. I did lots of research back then on what to say to a five-year-old about a disaster like this. I was surprised to learn that most experts in this field recommend “as little as possible, if anything at all” at that age. Kids six and under cannot process these kinds of tragic events. So bringing up the topic or exposing them to the news and constant coverage is not in their best interest.

If they do hear things, as many kids will, then it’s time to talk. Younger siblings are more likely to hear bits and pieces so it’s important that an adult help them clarify and make sense of it all so they don’t become desensitized or normalize the behavior. Based on all I’ve read, here’s my summary of recommendations for talking with kids ages 7-11 about tragedy:

First, ask what they know. “What did you hear?” “What else did they say?” It’s helpful to get a sense of your child’s understanding and respond to their interpretation of it. Don’t give them more information than they need.

Empathize with how they’re feeling. Listen to what they’re saying and what they’re not saying. They’ll need your help to label their feelings because it’s unfamiliar territory for them. “How does that make you feel?” “Does all this make you feel scared?” “Are you worried that it could happen here/to you?” “It sounds like you’re angry?”

Next, reassure them that you will always be there to keep them safe (even though this is not a guarantee, kids this age cannot think in the abstract; they need concrete statements).  “You are safe with us. We love you and will always be here to take care of you.”

Finally, when and if the why questions come, here are some answers: “Sometimes people do bad things because they didn’t learn how to make good decisions.” Or “They don’t have someone they can talk to when they’re angry or sad or afraid and those feelings build up.” Or “They don’t have enough people in their life who love them and take care of them like you do.”

Here are a few more inks with ideas on talking to kids about tragedy:

 CNN and Parenting.com

Imagination Soup blogger Melissa Taylor has a nice summary of what our old friend Mr. Rogers would say:

 CBS This Morning (this is a video so be aware of little big ears listening):

Reassuring your kids they are safe and you will be there for them no matter what are the most important messages. Once they hit adolescence and can process more abstract thoughts, then bigger and broader conversations are in order.

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