Talking to Children in the Wake of Tragedy
Dean Clinic Child Psychiatrist Bhawani Ballamudi offers advice on how to talk with children about tragedies and natural disasters
When school shootings or other national tragedies occur, we are all left saddened and scared. Events like the Newtown school shooting, the Oklahoma City tornadoes or the Boston Marathon bombings also bring up a lot of questions, including, how do I talk to my child about what happened?
Reassurance is key. Kids need to feel safe.
It’s important to create an open and supportive environment for the kids to ask questions. Be patient, as the questions may come back again and again as the kids are making sense of the tragedy in their own realities.
Be honest when talking with your kids. Try to keep the information as factual as possible, without excessive emotion or drama.
Kids react more to the emotion sometimes than to the contents of the conversation.
Here is a list of other important things to keep in mind when talking to children about tragedies, such as the recent school shooting.
- Keep the explanations developmentally appropriate and age specific. The younger the child, the more generic you need to keep the conversation. Acknowledge and validate the child’s feelings, emotions and reactions, and let them know it’s normal to have these emotions.
- Kids tend to personalize the experience and worry about their own situation. Let them know that there are a lot of nice people that are there for them.
- Avoid excess exposure to TV news and media coverage about the shooting. Kids sometimes do not understand if this is repeated coverage or if there has been another incident.
Children are quite resilient and most will return to their normal activities and personality fairly quickly, but parents should be alert to any signs of anxiety that might suggest that a child or teenager needs more assistance.
Seek professional help if your child is struggling with sleep problems, is excessively clinging to you, refuses to go to school or has intrusive thoughts or fears about going out in public.
Dean Clinic has resources available to help. If you are concerned about your child’s well-being, first contact your child’s physician. Your child’s physician will be able to determine if another talk with one of our Dean specialists, dedicated to helping children through difficult conversations such as these, is appropriate.