Dad talks to preschooler about tragedies and comforts her

How to Talk with Your Child About Tragedy

Today’s world of smartphones and information flow makes it difficult to shield young children from scary news coverage of events like attacks on schools and public venues. When disaster strikes, you may think, “What do I tell my child?” and “How can I preserve her innocence without lying?”

It is important for parents to do their best to protect young children from these stories. However, when a child hears adults talking or sees frightening images on computers or on televisions, it’s key to know what to say.

Here are some tips to help you talk to and comfort your child from early childhood development expert Lynn Louise Wonders:

  • Be reassuring. Children may experience stress when they don’t understand what they think is dangerous. Don’t over-talk. Using a soothing tone, reassure your child that, during an emergency, adults including parents, teachers and other caregivers will be working to keep him or her safe.
  • Focus on the helpers. When these events occur, let your little one know there are brave helpers who arrive on the scene — first responders, police and emergency medical services personnel. Emphasize how many helpers are ready to assist people when scary things happen.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of a hug. Children from infancy through age five benefit tremendously from loving touch and embrace. Hug. Snuggle. Rub your child’s back. Stroke his or her hair. This touch communicates to your child that he is safe and loved, and helps to soothe anxiety.
  • Be honest. Give children information that’s clear, accurate and age appropriate. Don’t lie, but don’t give in-depth details or show graphic images that will confuse or disturb your child. Additionally, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know” — it’s better than making something up if you’re unsure of the answer.
  • Keep your answers short and simple.  It’s important to remember young children can’t process abstract information. Avoid discussing political issues with your preschooler and keep your answers focused on the fact that he and she has loving, protective parents nearby.  
  • Monitor your own anxiety. Let’s face it. During scary times, no one feels it more than the parent of a young child. Don’t hesitate to reach out for some one-on-one counseling support if you find your anxiety is getting in the way of your ability to reassure your child. There is absolutely no shame in asking for help.

While it’s natural to get caught up in the details of a scary event, we can find lessons that encourage the development of character traits that help them grow into responsible and compassionate adults. In the wake of tragedy, help your children recognize the following character traits in others and in themselves:

  • Bravery: In the midst of any type of emergency, we see bravery at work. Bravery is doing something to help keep yourself and others safe even when it may seem scary. Tie in lessons of bravery while focusing on the helpers when discussing scary situations.    
  • Empathy: Help children recognize that just as we may feel sad or scared sometimes, others can feel sad or scared, too. When we know that others are sad, we want to treat them like we would want to be treated. Teach your child the importance of community and being compassionate toward others following a tragedy.
  • Resilience: Children are naturally resilient, but we can help them develop healthy coping mechanisms. Remind children that bad things happen sometimes, but they don’t stay that way. Plus, there are adults who are working to keep them safe and protected. Help children identify healthy ways to express and cope with their emotions, whether it’s through play with peers, art projects or music.

Remember, you are absolutely capable of helping your child understand and cope during hard times. Want more tips for talking to your child about disasters? Read this post.

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