How to Talk to Kids About Tragedy

A local mental health expert weighs in on what parents should say and what to avoid.

The world can be a scary place.

We try our best to shield our kids from it, but five minutes of the evening news almost any day of the week can make it all for naught.

Whether it’s from TV, conversations with other kids at school or anywhere else, children will inevitably hear about some of the tragedies that occur around us. In light of recent incidents both nearby and across the world, it’s a good idea for parents to be prepared on what to say when kids hear upsetting news.

“Children do spend a lot of time in front of the television,” says licensed master social worker Marisa Nicely, the vice president of clinical and youth services for Starfish Family Services in Inkster.

Television news can often become the unintentional background noise at home, even playing during meal times. Parents might not realize how much their kids are paying attention.

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“We get desensitized to it,” says Nicely, who has been working with children and families for more than 20 years.

And while many kids are restricted from TV news, that doesn’t mean their friends aren’t watching it and sharing what they’ve heard.

“The children are overhearing it and they’re talking amongst themselves at school,” she says.

Other times, incidents are so major that parents will want to be the first ones to explain it to their kids. So how should parents handle these conversations? Nicely offers the following tips.

1. Stay calm

“The first thing parents can do is remain really calm,” she says. Try not to seem anxious or fearful.

2. Listen

“Hear the child out and their perception and interpretation of what happened,” Nicely recommends. Then discuss and clarify any incorrect information.

3. Manage the message

As difficult as it can be to discuss frightening events with your children, don’t avoid the topic.

“Managing the message is the most important thing,” she says. “You don’t want to shelter your kids. You definitely want to have conversations about things that happen.”

But keep it appropriate and avoid sharing details that kids don’t need to know. It’s better to hear about things from a parent, Nicely says, “where they hear the facts that they can handle.”

“It’s not about the certain age but the individual child’s level of maturity. Children develop at different rates and are able to process information at different rates,” she adds. “Make a decision about how much information they can handle and not feel unsafe.”

4. Reassure your child he’s safe

“Children really personalize these types of events and it makes them worry about their own safety and whether these events can impact them,” Nicely explains.

To help, tell your kids about the things you and others do to keep them safe.

“Have a conversation about how the child is safe and all of the factors that are in place to keep them safe,” she recommends.

A discussion about family emergency plans, like what to do in case of a fire, can also help.

5. Let kids express their feelings

Encourage your child to express his feelings and let him know it’s OK to be upset.

“Talking about it and having the conversation is ultimately long-term a lot healthier than having the children sit with those feelings and with those worries,” Nicely says. “It affects their emotional health, their physical health, their ability to learn. Make sure that we’re giving them a space to get those feelings out into the universe and not within themselves.”

6. Extra time together

Make sure your child feels secure – and isn’t alone with her feelings – by spending some extra time together, she adds. A little extra attention, like additional reading time or cuddles before bed, can help.

7. Seek out help if needed

If your child continues to struggle with something that happened, don’t hesitate to seek out mental health support.

“If it’s something where it doesn’t seem to be getting better over time, definitely it’s a strength to seek out mental health help,” Nicely says. “It’s a healthy thing to recognize that something is happening and get your child help for it. If they had the flu you wouldn’t just say, ‘We’re going to ride it out.'”

It can even become a situation of “toxic stress,” which can happen in response to personally-experienced trauma or secondary trauma.

“A high level of exposure to toxic stress can really impact their brain development, their ability to learn and focus in school and really their long-term health,” she says.

8. Emphasize the good

While parents may struggle to answer a child’s questions of “why” or “how” such terrible things could happen, they can remind kids to “always look for the helpers,” as Mr. Rogers famously suggested.

“It’s really important to focus on not just the tragedy but how the community comes together to support each other through tragedy,” Nicely says. “Things are going to happen; it’s how we come together as a community that really gets us through these things.”

9. Do something to help

Give children a sense of personal control by letting them contribute to a fundraiser for victims, write thank-you notes for first responders or another way of getting involved.

It can give kids “a sense of purpose and contributing to being part of the good in that situation,” Nicely says.

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