As parents, we understand that bad things happen in the world, but it can be hard to find the words to explain tragedies to children in a way that comforts them and doesn’t add to their fears. What do we say when a plane crashes, or a bomb goes off, or there is yet another school shooting?
Our children are like little sponges, they absorb everything around them — much more than we realize — and it’s important to address any fears and concerns they may have. “Am I safe? Who would do such a thing? Why?”
There are no easy answers to these questions. It’s difficult to explain to a child (or anyone) how something so terrible could happen — especially when we’re still trying to make sense of it ourselves.
So for parents who need some guidance, we’ve gathered some expert tips for talking to your kids about devastating news events:
Be honest, but age appropriate
“Convey the important aspects but limit the amount of detail based on your child’s age,” says Dr. Angelina Morales, a clinical psychologist who specializes in children and adolescents. “Be sensitive to your child’s temperament.”
“Keep the language age-appropriate,” says Dr. Ivy Margulies, a clinical psychologist. “The younger the child, the more simple the answer. Less is more.”
Encourage them to talk about their feelings
Make sure that they know that they are free to talk about their concerns and their fears. Some may be hesitant to bring it up, so start the conversation by letting them know you are interested in how they are coping with the information they are getting. Use open-ended questions: “What have you heard about it?” “Why do you think that happened?” or “What do you think people should do to help?”
Children do not have the same reasoning capability as an adult – their brains are still developing the ability to discern make-believe from reality. “Young children are very concrete, if they see the disaster on TV, they are more likely to feel anxious,” says Dr. Margulies. “For this reason, when children see something scary on television, they need extra reassurance that it is not real.”
PBS.org suggests parents offer examples about their specific environment to reassure children they are safe, such as “I can see you’re worried, but you are safe here. Remember how we always lock our doors.”
Lead by example
Dr. Margulies reminds us that children regulate their internal emotional states by mirroring their parent’s emotional state. “The more in control and relaxed you are, the safer your child will feel,” she says. Try not to overexpose your child to news coverage or let your own anxiety or fears overtake your demeanor.
Review your family’s safety plan
Work with your kids to create an action plan in the event of a natural disaster or any kind of attack in your area. Make sure they know how to call for help in the event of a fire and put together an emergency preparedness kit to keep in a designated area of your home. Help children identify at least one adult at school and in the community to whom they go if they feel threatened or at risk.
Watch your child for signs of distress
Parents should be alert to any signs of anxiety that might suggest that a child or teenager might need more assistance. According to Dr. Morales, indicators could include “sleeplessness, nightmares, moodiness/irritability, or excessive tearfulness.” The American Psychological Association suggests that parents also watch out for “a change in the child’s school performance, changes in relationships with peers and teachers, headaches or stomachaches, or loss of interest in activities that the child used to enjoy.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
If you are worried about your child’s reaction to the news or have concerns about his/her behavior or emotions, don’t hesitate to contact a mental health professional.
And last but not least …
Give your little one a hug. Tell your children how much you love them. And say a little prayer for any parents around the world who are not able to hug their children tonight.More On