Talking To Kids About Tragedy

Jun 3, 2013

Photo by: Rick Wilking /Reuters /Landov

From natural disasters like deadly tornadoes to school shootings, tragic events that occur throughout the nation may leave many parents wondering how to approach such sensitive topics with their children.  KUAR’s Kezia Nanda has a report on an Arkansas parent’s approach, along with some advice from an expert on providing reassurance to young ones in uncertain times.

A lot of people may feel dread as they watch news coverage of tragic events.

Adults and children will inevitably be faced with worries and uncertainties, and the question becomes:

How do parents talk to their children about horrible events when they, too, may be scared?

A Little Rock mother, Jill Johnson, has three daughters ages 20, 18 and 7. And she says since they all have unique personalities, they all tend to react differently to sad news.

“I have one that really doesn’t want to talk about it at all because she’s aware that it will make her fearful, I have one that’s completely oblivious and does not even aware, and one that wants to talk about it,” said Johnson.

A New York City psychologist specializing in bereavement issues, Dr. Robin Goodman, has been working a lot with children and teenagers and she says parents should ask children questions in a conversational manner and avoid phrasing things in a manner that may seem as if they are giving a lecture.

“They may just be general and ask, ‘have you heard anything in the news lately?’ Or ‘a lot of people are talking about that thing that happened this week.’ And be very vague and then see what you can elicit from your child. And then based on what they say, you’ll know where to take the conversation,” said Goodman.

Johnson’s oldest daughter was only 8 years old on 9/11. She says her daughter had some questions.

Johnson said, “[My daughter asked], ‘How is this going to affect me? Is this going to change my life and our interactions and what’s going on around me?’ And I just try to reassure [my daughters] that they were safe, and there wasn’t anything that they needed to be doing, and they weren’t responsible for anything that was going on. It was just some people making some bad choices, and our military and our law enforcement were doing everything they could to make it right and make them pay the consequences of their actions.”

Dr. Goodman says it’s important to pay attention to what children are asking and come up with very specific answers. She says this will avoid overwhelming kids with things that were not even on their mind.

“Some children, they’ve heard about a car crash or a train wreck, they’d be very worried about how they’re going to get to Grandma’s on the train next week. And that’s a very specific kind of question to answer. They may not need to know all the information about who did it or why,” said Goodman.

For those children who do not like to talk about what is happening, Dr. Goodman suggests parents be aware that they may actually be expressing their questions and concerns during activities in their daily lives.

“Sometimes it’s how they’re playing. If they are more aggressive in their play or if they’re acting out things that seem familiar to what you know about in the news. Those are things you want to look at. And then make sure your children know that you’re there to talk to them, comfort them and help them not only to express what’s going on but to cope with what’s going on.”

Johnson says as a parent, she tries to monitor what her children are watching on television.

“I would either go in the bedroom and check the news and get an update, or check it online and get an update what’s happening in the world. But I try to limit their exposure to having to see that over and over again. And I think that was probably a good thing.”

Dr. Goodman says that’s exactly what she believes parents should be doing to avoid re-traumatizing or confusing their children.

Goodman said, “For toddlers and preschoolers, you definitely want to turn off the news. Because when they see things over and over again, they may think it’s happening over and over again. They don’t understand that it’s the news talking about it over and over again.”

According to Dr. Goodman, children feed off the emotions of adults around them.  Johnson says that was the case with her daughter that was at school on 9/11.

“My older daughter said that her teachers were very calm and very reassuring. She knew there was a problem. She knew something was going on. But because the adults around her were calm, collected, had a plan in place, and things appear to be taken care of, she wasn’t anxious about it,” said Johnson.

Parents are just one factor in how kids cope with bad news. Goodman notes other factors include how close the children were to the incident, whether the incident put them in any sort of danger, and what their personality is like.

Johnson says, for her, it sometimes helps to let Elmo do the talking.

Click here to watch a series of Elmo videos.

Points to keep in mind (summary from conversations with psychologist Dr. Robin Goodman and Little Rock mother Jill Johnson):

1.     Assume your kids know that something is happening. But, don’t assume what your kids already know.

2.     Be conversational.

3.     Ask vague questions to see what they know, answer their specific questions, and don’t overwhelm them with things that weren’t in their mind.

4.     Be calm and less anxious because kids would notice and feed off your emotions.

5.     Each kid is unique. Not every kid expresses their concerns. Watch their behavior and notice any changes in behavior, especially if they become more aggressive.

6.     TV and other media can be scary to kids. Protect your kids from seeing or hearing things they don’t want to see or hear.

7.     Assure kids about their safety. Help older kids in knowing how to keep themselves safe and to do good things in the world.

8.     Don’t be discouraged, you know your kids more than you think you do. Parenting is just one factor, kids’ personalities and how close they were with the tragedy play a big role as well.

Similar method can be adapted for any kind of sad news such as war, the loss of loved ones, and loss of pets.