How to talk to your kids about tragedy

Adult embracing and comforting child

How can parents and guardians best help kids understand and process tragedy? What does a “normal” reaction look like?

Below, OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital Child Psychiatrist Dr. Ajit Jetmalani provides guidance for families in the days and weeks following a high-profile disaster or tragedy.

  • Parents should be aware of their own reactions to these tragedies and attempt to refrain from alarming their children through verbal or non-verbal cues. Children often become concerned about their own safety or the safety of their families upon hearing of tragedies. Children often take their parents’ lead as to how to react.
  • Every child’s reaction is unique to his or her personality, developmental stage and experiences. Create a sense of openness to discussion but avoid pressuring children to talk.
  • It is important to make sure children understand that the events that took place are rare occurrences and that children remain quite safe and secure.
  • Parents should monitor their kids’ TV watching and make sure they are not overly exposed to tragedies such as these. News reports are too fast for kids to absorb. In addition, children process this type of information much differently than adults and think of the personal impacts more often than adults do.
  • It’s OK to proactively talk to your kids about these events, as they will likely hear about them later. Be sure to provide limited detail and highlight the rarity of such occurrences.
  • Experts also think that children who are preschool age and younger do not need to be provided with details of these events unless they ask.
  • Encourage kids to talk about how they are feeling and respond to those concerns.
  • Remember that loving and supportive relationships can protect against anxiety. Reinforce those relationships and remind kids how families help protect children.
  • Look for signs that a child is struggling to cope with their emotions: for young children; increased fear of separation, regression of skills (bed wetting, not wanting to dress themselves), hyperactivity or anger. For older children; increased isolation, irritability and seeming withdrawn or disinterested in school and friends. If you see these issues, talk to your child and seek assistance if necessary.
  • Parents strive to make the world as safe as possible for their children. When things like this happen, it feels like the shield is broken. We can’t control natural disasters and horrible violence, but we can control how we express love and compassion on a daily basis. We can continue to set clear expectations and provide instruction about how to be generally safe in society. Reminding children and adolescents about safety precautions they can take day to day can support an eventual return of a sense of safety in your family’s life.

Additional Resources
Dr. Jetmalani also recommends the following National Child Traumatic Stress Network resources for parents and caregivers:
Psychological First Aid Field Operations Guide
Tips for Parents on Media Coverage
Age-Related Reactions to a Traumatic Event

One response to “How to talk to your kids about tragedy

  1. It’s always horrible to tell children the bad news. it’s heartbreaking for us adults imagine what the children have to go through being told they will never see their loved ones again…

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