Talking to Children about Tragedy


Tips for speaking to your children about tragedies such as shootings, mass disasters, natural disasters.

US National Archives kids

Photo courtesy of National Archives

Unfortunately there have been shootings and other tragedies in many communities, large and small, in America. Children and teenagers are affected by disasters and tragedies just as are adults.

The most important thing that a parent can do is ask the child or teen his or her understanding of the tragic event, so that the child feels comfortable expressing emotion. Silence suggests to the teen that the subject is too awful to even discuss, even though of course, the teen is thinking and worrying about the event. Start by gently correcting any misconceptions. You don’t have to describe the event in detail, but allowing the child or teen to discuss her feelings is important.

Parents think toddlers don’t understand what they see on television, but toddlers recognize the emotions their parents are feeling. Preschool children may regress in their behavior and become more clingy. They may start sucking their thumbs, or wetting the bed. Other toddlers may act out. Strong emotions bring out strong behavior. When toddlers, preschool, and school age children see the disaster or tragic event on television, they think the event is occurring again and again. Keeping the television off to prevent retraumatization is helpful. Recording television programs and reviewing the broadcasts before the children see it can be helpful. Watching the television with your child so he can ask questions is also helpful.

School age children may also either act out or regress in their behavior. Sleeping in parents bed or skipping chores for a day or two is okay! It allows the child to feel more secure and safe. Security is a huge concern for children. Make sure they know that measures have been taken by law enforcement or the community, or that your family has a safety plan.

With teens, they may feel that life is meaningless and may take more risks than normal. Watch for this type of behavior because risky behavior can affect the adolescent in a significant way. Discussing positive actions carried out by heroes or bystanders can also be helpful. The teen may want to be closer to their parent for a period of time, to feel safe, and that is fine. Trouble sleeping and a decline in grades (transiently) can also occur. Some teenagers may try to avoid the people and situations that occurred at the time of the tragedy because these triggers cause

If your child or teen continues to have negative feelings and depression after 2 weeks, professional consultation with a physician, psychologist, or counselor will be helpful.

Last updated by Dr. Vee on October 22, 2015.

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