Tips on How to Talk to Your Kids About a Public Tragedy

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{This is a post I had written for another blog right after the Newtown shooting. I thought it relevant to post here, now, because of yet another shooting that occurred today- the one in Oregon. When will this madness end????}

With all of the tragedies that have gone on in this country over the last decade, and especially the one that occurred this week in Connecticut, it is more important than ever that parents have an idea of how they should talk to their children if something bad happens. Every time I turned on the news today (and I’m sure it will be the same tomorrow too) stories of the Newtown tragedy were on. It will be all over the newspapers, it will be on the radio, and people everywhere will be talking about it. It is inevitable that at some point our children will hear about it in one way or another.
The first thing to remember is that YOU know your child best so you will know what will work for your child, but here are some basic guidelines:

1. Unless your child is about 7-8 years old, there is no need to bring it up unless they ask. No need to make your child anxious or scared about something they didn’t know about in the first place. Odds are, they will hear about it somewhere, but just in case they don’t, refrain from bringing it to their attention. Younger children may not be able to process the news properly, but again, you know your child the best so you will know what they can and cannot handle.

2. Be honest with them. If they ask about what happened, don’t lie and don’t sugar coat it. That won’t do anyone any good. I’m not saying that you have to give all the gory details, but tell them that something scary happened. Tell them there are bad people in the world who do bad things. Give them an idea of what the “bad thing” was, but don’t go into too much detail. You don’t want to make them any more scared or anxious than they already are. For example, with the Newtown incident, if a younger child asked about it, I might say something like, “A bad man went into a school and used a gun. There were people who were hurt and people who died. This man was not right in his head, but he is dead now because he used the gun on himself.” Word your explanation based on the age of your child and with regard to what you think your child can handle.

3. Reassure your child. Being honest is necessary and so we must also reassure our children. Again, don’t lie to them. Don’t tell them this will never happen to them or to anyone they know. Of course, odds are it probably won’t ever happen to them, but don’t promise or guarantee something you have no control over. Instead, tell them that you love them and that you will always do everything in your power to keep them safe. Do what you need to do to make them feel safe in the moment. If you child wants to sleep with the light on that night, then let them. If your child wants to help you lock the house up, then let them. Do what they need, within reason of course. You never want anything to step over the line into pathology.

4. Make sure you really know what your child is thinking and feeling about the situation. Ask them questions about what they heard, what they were told, what they saw, what they think, etc. You want to make sure that you have a full understanding of what their understanding of the situation is. Make sure they don’t have things mixed up and clear up any misconceptions that they may have. Validate their feelings. Let them know it’s okay to feel how ever it is that they are feeling. Never make them feel as if what they are feeling is silly or not justified.

5. Having this discussion is also a good jumping off point to review different safety procedures with your child. Talk about ways they can protect themselves and reiterate to them all of the things you do to help keep them safe. Review with them who are the safe people in their lives- family members, friends, police officers, firemen, teachers- whoever you deem as safe. Make sure your child knows about 911 and what to do if there is some kind of an emergency.

Remember, YOU know your child best. With that in mind, you will need to decide the what, when, where, and how when talking to your child. If the tragedy is something that affects them directly, the above tips will also apply, but this would be the time to get a professional involved as well. Find your child a counselor to talk to immediately so that the fear and/or anxiety that they are feeling doesn’t turn into something pathological.