How to talk to kids about tragic events

In today’s world, tragedy is hard to escape. We are constantly exposed to media coverage of the latest terrorist attack, mass shooting, or bombing. And though we try our best to protect them, our children are, too.

Deciding if, how, and when to talk to children about tragic events is a dilemma that many parents face. It may seem like the best option is to avoid the conversation completely; it’s probably not something you want to talk about in general, let alone with your children. But ultimately, creating a dialogue after a tragedy is the best thing you can do for your child’s mental and emotional health.

“Many parents don’t even want to broach the subject with their kids,” said Kevin Caputo, M.D., chair of Psychiatry and Vice President of Behavioral Health for Crozer-Keystone. “But from a professional standpoint, we highly recommend having a conversation, no matter how uncomfortable it might make you feel at first.”

If you, like many parents, are unsure how to go about discussing a tragedy with your child, follow these steps to help guarantee a safe, relaxed, and productive conversation.

Find out what your children already know.

Thanks to smartphones and social media, children have a completely unprecedented amount of access to information. They likely find out about a tragedy soon after you do—and sometimes before. Ask them to tell you what they know and understand already.

Younger children will probably get the story from friends or classmates who have gotten information via their parents or TV. Tweens and teens are more likely to have a deeper understanding of the events from social media and news sites.

Make sure that the information they relay to you is correct. If there are any misunderstandings, clarify the details. For older children, emphasize the importance of determining a source’s credibility before trusting it.

Explain what happened.

If your child is not aware of or knows very little about the situation, explain it to them in simple and straightforward language. Avoid focusing on unnecessary details.

“Sometimes, with younger children, it helps to use phrases like ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy,’” said Caputo. “Using language that they are familiar with will help them understand what happened more easily.”

While you explain the event, be sure to remain composed. Children will model your behavior, so if you don’t seem worried or upset by the event your child is less likely to become anxious or scared.

Ask them if they have any questions.

Once you’ve told the story, ask if your children have any questions for you. Once again, answer in a straightforward manner without harping on details. Do not avoid answering any questions. The important thing is to let them know that you are listening and there to help them understand.

Comfort them.

Finally, reassure your children. Tell them that they are safe in your home and that you are always there for them if they are scared.

It can also be very helpful to articulate the rarity of these occurrences. Because of the massive amount of media coverage, your child might believe that tragedies happen often. Comfort them by reiterating how rare these events are.

After having the conversation, it’s important to go about daily life as usual. If children don’t sense anxiety, there is a far better chance that they’ll forget about the event and quickly move on. Be sure to also pay attention to their behavior during the following weeks. If they seem anxious or upset for an extended period of time, you should talk to them and consider calling a therapist (Psychiatrist, Psychologist, or Licensed Clinical Social Worker) if needed.

Crozer-Keystone Behavioral Health

Crozer-Keystone Health System employs Delaware County’s largest staff of board-certified and board-eligible psychiatrists. We offer a comprehensive range of services in the areas of mental health and substance abuse, including emergency care, outpatient counseling and inpatient psychiatric treatment. To learn more, visit crozerkeystone.org/Behavioral-Health

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About Crozer Keystone Staff

Crozer-Keystone Health System’s physicians, specialists and advanced practitioners are committed to improving the health of our community through patient-centered, quality care across a full continuum of health services. Crozer Brinton Lake is Crozer-Keystone’s comprehensive outpatient care facility in western Delaware County, offering primary care, specialty services, outpatient surgery and advanced cancer treatment. Contact us: 300 Evergreen Drive, Glen Mills, PA 19342 http://www.crozerkeystone.org/Brinton-Lake 1-855-254-7425

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