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How to Talk to Kids About Tragedy

What do you say when the unthinkable happens? The answer is different for every child

As parents, we struggle with how to share scary information with our children. We don’t want to create anxiety, but we don’t want to ignore the facts of life, either. If we don’t tell them, maybe someone else will. Maybe another child at camp. Or a counselor. Or maybe they will catch a glimpse on one of the zillions of screens surrounding them, because smart phones, iPads, laptops, desktops and televisions are everywhere. There are a hundred ways my kids might hear about this between drop-off and pick-up from camp. And a hundred more once they are home this afternoon.

It is a very personal decision whether you choose to share information about any given tragedy with your children. There isn’t a right or a wrong answer here, because the answer depends upon a whole constellation of factors: How old are your kids? Do you have a mechanism for talking about things like this in your family? Have your children experienced tragedy in their own lives? How fearful are your kids? Are they anxious, or are they able to absorb information without being paralyzed by fear? Each parent knows best for her kid. And if you have multiple children, the answers might be different among them.

How much to tell. If you do choose to share, my best piece of advice is to gauge how much to tell your child. Kids will often ask broad questions, so help narrow them down. “Why did this happen?” is a huge question. Instead, ask your children what they mean by that. They might be asking about the state of the world, they might be asking about mental illness or they might be asking about safety within their own home.

What your child is really asking. In fact, if you ever feel overwhelmed by one of your kid’s questions, stop and say, “That is a really interesting question. What makes you ask?” because this will help clarify what your child is after. It also helps minimize anxiety, because sometimes—maybe even oftentimes—we think we know what our children are asking and we give an answer that offers way too much information, introducing notions they had never even considered.

The choice to not talk about it. And what if you choose not to talk about it with your kids? That might be the right answer in some families—especially ones with very young children. But if this is your choice, remember that you cannot control all of the other information sources surrounding your child. This includes the news that is airing on the screen inside your own home.

We have awoken to disasters before—natural, manmade, accidental and terrorist-induced—and, sadly, we will wake to them again in the future. What you say to your kids and how you say it will evolve as they get older. The one thing that will never change is the acknowledgement of sadness.

For more information about talking to your kids about tragedies, go to the American Academy of Pediatrics website.

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