Global ChallengesViolence

Talking with Kids About Violence and Tragedy


Courtesy of National Association of School Psychologists

Do you listen to the news with your kids in the car? Change the channel if they come in to the room? Let them read the newspaper? Depends on their ages, right?

It is totally appropriate to protect young children from issues they can't comprehend or process. At some point, though, we must begin to expose our kids to these realities so that they can learn about the world and discuss their reactions.

Also, unfortunately, some tragedies are too big or too close to avoid. Natural disasters, public shootings, September 11th, even children who didn't lose loved ones in these tragedies are often touched by them.

Why do adults "hush" around kids when these hard topics are being discussed? We are afraid to...

  • ... answer hard questions. "Why did that happen?" Most tragedies give rise to unanswerable questions.
  • ... scare our kids. Learning that people die leads kids to some logical conclusions we could die, they could die, these bad things could happen to people they know and love.
  • ... handle their emotions, and our own.

There are ways to handle our reactions, and our kids' feelings, that build us into hopeful, resilient people.

When something awful happens and you realize that you need to discuss it with a child, follow these steps.

1. Pick the time for the conversation. We don't have to answer right away. If your daughter comes home from school asking "Why does September 11th make people sad?" you can say "That's a good question. We can talk about it in a few hours."

2. Do a little research. Make sure you understand enough about the incident to be able to tell the story to your child. If this was a natural disaster, get the answers to the most obvious questions could this happen in your area? What would you do?

3. Decide how much is enough. Most kids do not need to hear every gory detail about a tragic event. Talk with your parenting partner if you have one, and choose how much information to give, and which parts of the story are not appropriate. Then decide what you're going to say if the questions delve into those sensitive areas. Try "That's enough information for now" or "Some of this is too hard to talk about right now."

4. Figure out how you feel. Children have their own emotions, but they often copy how a parent reacts when confronted with a new situation. Be ready to talk about your own feelings and thoughts again without having to give every detail.

5. Respect your child's reaction. Whatever your child's reaction, there is value to going through this process with kids. As much as we'd like to protect them from every hard situation, we can't. They need practice at feeling scared, sad, worried, angry, overwhelmed. This is how they learn that these emotions are survivable!

6. Have an action plan. If your child is interested, have a few ideas about what your family might do to help the survivors or family of those who were lost. Making a card, or a small donation to a helping organization can empower kids and do real good.

7. Don't forget reassurance. These events seem common in the world, but are really rare in any one person's lifetime!