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How to talk to your children after a tragedy

What to say to kids depends on their age, experts say

Photo (c) digitalskillet - Getty Images
In the aftermath of a senseless tragedy, such as the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, parents and caregivers are faced with the difficult task of talking to children about what happened and reassuring them that they are safe.

While exposure to information about the tragedy should ideally be limited (especially for children under 8), it’s not always possible to shield children from all the details of a major crisis.

Questions and fears can arise when children see frightening images on TV, social media, or when they hear their peers talking about the tragedy. It’s a parent’s job to filter information about the tragedy and answer any questions kids might have.

Addressing children’s concerns

What to say to children depends on their age and developmental stage, but recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) state that parents should begin conversations with children of all ages the same way: by asking what they have already heard.

More often than not, kids will have heard something about the tragedy. The first step towards helping them cope with the news is to answer any questions they have in an honest, straightforward manner. Let your child’s answers and reactions guide your discussion.

Your child’s age will affect how they process the information. Older children, teens, and young adults might ask more questions and benefit from additional information. In conversations with children of all ages, it’s best to avoid dwelling on the scale or scope of the tragedy.

Conversations vary by age

Here are a few tips for talking to children in different age ranges about a tragedy:

  • Preschool age. For very young children, the tragedy does not need to be brought up unless they have heard something about it first. If they have, get down to your child’s eye level and speak in a calm and gentle voice while answering any questions that might be on their mind.
  • Elementary school age. This is an age range when parents should share basic details about the tragedy and make sure children know they can come to them with questions. Make a point of reassuring children that they are truly safe.
  • Middle and high school age. Older children can be given more detailed information about the tragedy and recovery efforts. Figure out what may be bothering them and address any safety concerns. Discuss what your family does to keep each other safe as well as what communities do to keep people safe.

‘Look for the helpers’

When a tragedy occurs, it can also be helpful to remind children of the words of television personality Fred Rogers, who explained how his mother used to make him feel safe in a scary world.

“Always look for the helpers,’ she’d tell me. ‘There’s always someone who is trying to help.’ I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong," said Rogers.

The Fred Rogers organization has a part of their website dedicated to helping children understand the images they see on TV and online. It can be viewed here.

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