How to Talk to Your Child About Tragedy

When something horrible happens and you personally find it hard to understand, how do you explain it to your child?

Tragedies, like school shootings, are difficult to discuss, and your first impulse may be to shield your child from the topic. But that may end up doing more harm than good.

“If they don’t talk with you about it, they may end up confused and scared,” says Dr. Nicole Mavrides, a child development expert and child psychiatrist at the University of Miami Health System.

She says that the best way to start is by telling your child what happened and answering any questions they may have.

Here are some other tips:

Make your conversation age-appropriate

The way you would discuss a school shooting with a child in elementary school is different than how you would talk to a teenager. A teenager may want more specifics, whereas a young child doesn’t need to know as much information. If your six-year-old wants to know why someone would do something so awful, tell them that there are a few bad people in the world but, for the most part, people are good.

Assure your child that they are safe

Young children especially need to be reminded that they are safe. Some may have nightmares or feel anxious about going to school. Mavrides advises telling them that school shootings are rare and that their teachers have been trained in what to do if such an event should occur.

Tell them it’s okay to be sad

In situations like this, everyone grieves, at least a little,” says Mavrides.  “But that’s okay, and kids need to know that you are there for them.

If your teen begins to isolate themselves or has panic attacks, or your younger child starts to complain about frequent headaches or stomachaches, Mavrides suggests reaching out to a counselor or mental health provider.  Also, children or adolescents who have a mental illness, like depression or anxiety, may be triggered by an event like this.  In those cases, it may be a good idea to check in with their doctor, she says.

Get back to normal

The best thing you can do is stick to your child’s routine.  Take them to school and schedule play-dates; this will reassure your child that everything is okay.

Limit media exposure

Don’t have the news on all day.  Even when your child is playing, and you don’t think they are listening, they are still aware of what is going on around them. Ask your teens to take a social media holiday.

Talk about safety

In addition, Mavrides suggests that this is a good time to talk to your child about safety.  “Make sure your child knows what to do if they see anything suspicious at school or what they should do if they encounter a gun at a friend’s house,” she says.  “If you don’t own a gun you may not think of talking to your child about gun safety, but their friends’ parents may own guns and they need to know the rules.”