Explaining the unexplainable

The news may be scary, but kids can cope through talk and play.

Between natural disasters, violence and political drama, turning on the news these days can be frightening for anyone. Add the task of explaining these events to children, and it’s a recipe for serious stress.

“Many parents won’t talk to their little ones about these things, and I understand the temptation to avoid the issue,” shares Dr. Rebecca Marshall, child and adolescent psychiatrist at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. “But kids will hear about this stuff – they’re curious and remarkably perceptive. With so much anxiety in the air, they’ll pick up on it.”

So how, exactly, can we help our kids cope when really bad things happen?

If your children are old enough to verbalize their feelings, simply be open and available, and let them know that they can talk to you.

Dr. Marshall recommends bringing up the issue by saying – in a calm and neutral setting, like while sitting down to dinner or going for a walk –“Have you heard anything about what happened in [insert recent trauma locale here]? You might hear about it at school, so if you have any questions or are feeling upset, we can talk about it more.”

Other children may have a hard time articulating what’s upsetting, so they might express distress in other ways, like drawing, crying a lot, having nightmares or even by playing.

“I know a therapist whose kids saw a car accident when he was two; he would take out his toys and re-create it over and over,” remembers Dr. Marshall. “She sat with him and played it out. She didn’t need to say a lot, but showing him how the ambulance would come and help everyone allowed him to work out the concept that people get hurt.”

Think of the activities that your child finds really engaging, and invite them to draw, run or sing with you to work out some of the emotions.

While it’s important to talk about the reality of scary events, it’s definitely possible to overdo it.

“It’s not healthy to put blinders on, but you don’t need to pummel your kids with those images,” advises Dr. Marshall.

Kids are trying to make sense of the world, and they don’t necessarily know how to balance all the information coming at them.

If you’re concerned about your child, talk to your pediatrician or call OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital at 503-346-0640.

“When bad things happen to us, we have to get back to feeling safe and in control,” Dr. Marshall said.

The best way to get that feeling back is by focusing on the basics, like spending time together, going to bed at the same time every night and embracing routine. If your child’s anxiety persists after a few weeks – or if she simply doesn’t seem herself – call her pediatrician and get some help making her feel safe and secure


This article was written by Allison Jones and originally appeared in the Portland Monthly 2018 Kids’ Health Annual magazine.

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