When Tragedy Strikes: A Guide to Talking to Kids in the Aftermath

Wednesday, April 1, 2015
child-traumaAs parents, we want to shelter our kids from news of traumatic events — a school shooting across the country, the suicide of a child in our community or a death of someone close to the family. But sometimes that’s not possible. In these situations, what’s the right thing to say to our kids? The wrong thing?
Don’t worry about having the perfect textbook response ready, says Jennifer Crawford, PhD, a staff psychologistwith Menninger’s Adolescent Treatment Program. To get through tough times, focus instead on providing loving support, and talking and listening to your child, with the emphasis on listening. Here are Crawford’s suggestions for helping children cope.

When tragedy is in the news

Find out what your kids know. Because news travels so quickly these days — thanks to the Internet, social media and the school grapevine — our children quickly learn of national tragedies sooner than we would like. But how much do they really know?
“A good piece of advice is to ask them what they have heard,” Dr. Crawford says. “That will allow you to address their specific concerns, and clear up any false information. Also encourage questions and let them know you are available to answer new questions as they arise.”
Give the right amount of information. How you answer those questions depends on the age of the child, Dr. Crawford says. “Younger children need to be exposed to very limited details. Discussions should be brief, because they are not able to process all of the information.” Older children will know much more about the tragedy, and will probably ask for more details.
Limit access to news. “Be aware of what your kids are watching and know when to turn off the TV, or limit access to the Internet or social media,” Dr. Crawford says, adding that parents should watch news coverage with their children when possible. “It is easy to get sucked into the 24 hour news cycle, and there is a lot of sensationalism that kids don’t need to be privy to.”

When tragedy happens in your community

Stick to the facts. A tragedy in the community, such as a classmate’s suicide or a violent crime in your neighborhood, affects children more directly, and news of it may be widespread. Parents should consider what is appropriate to share, again based on the age of the child.
“Don’t get caught up in too many details.” Crawford says. “But if your children are curious, you don’t want to lie.” Give them the basic details first, she adds, then more information if they ask or if you think they are ready.
Help kids take action. “When tragedy hits a little closer to home, kids feel like they want to do something more tangible to help — such as sending cards to someone who is ill, raising money for a specific cause or participating in a prayer vigil,” Crawford says. When kids take action, they don’t feel as helpless.
Encourage healthy support. Kids cope in different ways, and not all will want to discuss the traumatic events openly with their parents. Older kids in particular draw support from social media, much to their parents’ chagrin.
“Kids use social media as a means of social support, and to restrict it could be cutting off support that the kids use,” Dr. Crawford says. “That being said; monitor it. Also, parents should encourage their children to invite their friends over in addition to them interacting over social media. It is important to have face-to-face contact as well.”

When tragedy hits home

Let kids grieve in their own way. A tragedy in the home, such as the death of a parent, sibling or close family member, or the loss of a home due to fire, hurts the most intimately — and stirs up a variety of intense emotions. “We need to allow kids to feel angry when they feel angry and sad when they feel sad,” she says. “Kids grieve in very different ways, and parents need to let them know that’s OK.”
Give them a safe space to talk. “Sometimes kids don’t want to talk about their problems because they don’t want to burden Mom or Dad,” Dr. Crawford says. Kids often benefit from talking to someone who is more neutral, such as a therapist or a counselor. “Then they have a space to talk about their feelings, openly and freely, where all of their feelings are valid.”
Check in frequently. If your kid is angry or sad, that doesn’t mean he or she is coping in a unnatural way. But if you get a sense that your child is not coping in a way that is healthy or natural — crying all the time, isolating himself or herself from others — contact a counselor. “Kids who cope with a tragedy in an unhealthy way are at increased risk for substance abuse, self-injury and other problem behaviors. Helping them deal with their feelings in a constructive way can help prevent bigger struggles later in life,” Dr. Crawford says.