Talking to Children About Tragic Events

How can we help children feel safe in the wake of tragic events? For many parents, it is hard to know what to say to children—or even to say anything at all. Discussing traumatic events in an age-appropriate, reassuring way provides a safe place for your child to share feelings and concerns, which can relieve anxiety and fear. And talking about tragic events with your child may help enhance his or her empathy and compassion for others.

When talking about traumatic events, use words and concepts that your child already understands. For example, you might explain a violent act as something very bad that someone did, offering reassurances about your child’s safety. Discussing the fact that traumatic events are very rare, and answering questions in a simple, straightforward, and age-appropriate way can help lessen anxious feelings. Following your child’s lead in talking about the event can help him or her feel safe.

It is also helpful to monitor your own feelings when discussing tragic events with your child. If you have a hard time managing your own feelings about an event, it is hard to be present for your child. If you seem extremely angry or afraid, it may not help your child feel safe. While sharing feelings about the event with your child is important, being calm and reassuring will be most helpful to him or her.

Finally, discussing the people who did good things for others during and after the tragic event can help your child feel safer. Talking with your child about “heroes”—from those who worked to help stop the bad situation to those who are helping survivors, from police officers to volunteers—can help reinforce the idea that the world is filled with good people, and help your child feel safer.

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