How To Talk About Tragedy With Children

Holding Hands

Dr. Corinne Masur

Following the terrible events in Orlando, parents all over the country are thinking about whether to talk with their children about what happened and, if so, what to say.

Moreover, families must think about whether to allow their kids to listen to radio news or watch TV coverage, and whether to talk about what happened in front of children. This event is particularly difficult as it involves not only horrible tragedy but so many other issues: terrorism, hate, homophobia, mental health, gun control– all issues which are difficult to know how to explain to children.

The following are ideas and suggestions. Your family may choose to follow some, to modify others, and to ignore the rest. Each family is different and each child is different, so do what feels right in your particular situation.

1. For children under 10, turn off the TV and the radio. The coverage is relentless and as more information comes out, the news becomes even more graphic and frightening for young children.

2. For young children who have already heard something about what has happened – whether from the news or from friends or from overhearing adult conversations, try to explain what happened in very simple terms. For example you can say, “A man in Orlando did a very bad thing. He hurt many people. The police stopped him and now we are all trying to understand why he did this and to make sure it does not happen again.” Answer any questions that follow as simply as possible. Try to avoid overwhelming your child with too much information, information that might be scary, or info that might make your child feel in danger.

3. Keep in mind that even with young children you can have a discussion. You can talk about what they think about why people do bad things; you can ask them whether they think it’s a good idea for people to be able to buy guns; you can talk about what are better and worse ways to handle angry feelings or feelings of hatred.

4. For older children, it’s very hard to protect them from the news since it’s everywhere – online, on TV, on the radio, coming from friends and relatives. However, you can still try to limit their viewing of television coverage by making sure the television is OFF most of the time and tuned to channels that do not cover the news at other times.

With these older children, have a discussion.
– Ask them what they know. If there are areas they are unclear about, explain simply about what happened.
– Ask them about what THEY think about it.
– Ask them what they think think the issues are.
– Don’t be afraid to talk about the issues of terrorism, hate crimes, homophobia and religious difference – but try to do so in terms that are appropriate to their age and stage of development.
– Try to listen to them and ask questions rather than lecturing TO them.

We’re all struggling to understand how and why such a terrible event could happen yet again in our country. Our children are struggling too and with even fewer resources to understand. The most important thing we can do right now is to provide love and support and comfort and to keep the discussion going.

For those interested in thinking further about talking to children about difficult topics, listen to the June 12 podcast of This American Life.

 

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