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Talking to your children about tragedy

Unfortunately, news of tragedy is not an uncommon occurrence in our lives. And when they occur, as we all struggle to understand how horrific events can happen, parents are faced with an added challenge: answering tough questions from their kids about what happened.

We’ve compiled some tips on how to handle this difficult conversation.

1. Tell your child what happened when they ask.

You may be tempted to try and shield your kids from distressing current events. Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more challenging to do so. While you can simply turn off the news at home, it’s much more difficult to limit a child’s exposure to news outside of the home and shield them from other people talking about an event. While discussing these subjects may make parents uncomfortable, answering their question shows that you’re open to talking about tough topics, meaning they’ll be more likely to open up to you again in the future. It also allows you to choose how they receive this information. If you don’t answer their questions, they may seek answers elsewhere instead.

When talking to them, do your best to speak in a calm voice, and try to relax so that you don’t appear tense or shaking. Children will notice your body language and if you appear scared, they’ll take that as a signal to be scared as well.

2. Don’t give them more information than what they’ve asked for.

Answering their questions without providing too much information can be a difficult balance. Providing more information than they’ve asked for can cause added fear and anxiety that is difficult for a young child to handle or process. When providing information, you also need to be aware of your child’s developmental level. One kindergarten aged child may be able to handle more information than another. You know your child best and will be the best judge of how much to share with them and how to share it.

Generally, preschool-aged children are still beginning to understand the permanency of death. Some children may bring up the subject repeatedly but this behaviour is normal. A preschool-aged child may not yet have the words to express what kind of feelings they’re having and it can help if a parent offers them some feeling words.

Children in kindergarten and early elementary school are beginning to have a more concrete understanding of death. Children in these years may struggle with strong and intense feelings related to this event and it is helpful to provide time and space to discuss what they’re feeling. One strategy to reassure your child is to maintain structure and consistency in their schedules.

3. Reassure them that they are safe and loved.

It can be especially difficult to answer questions around why someone might do something horrific, like commit a murder. You can explain that some people’s minds allow them to kill other people, but it is very rare and does not happen often. For a child of any age a good strategy is to reassure them that they’re safe and discuss in what ways their safety is ensured.

Some examples:

  • “An adult is always looking out for you, whether it’s mom and dad, a teacher or your grandparents.”
  • “Our house is safe and secure. No one can come in without our permission.”
  • Go over what to do if they are ever approached by a stranger.

4. Validate their feelings.

Reassure them that their feelings are normal and valid and you are there to help them process these emotions in whatever way you can. Some children may not talk openly about it, and instead start behaving in ways that are outside of how they usually act. For example, a child who has been impacted by an event may start to regress to behaviours they have outgrown. If they don’t directly ask you about an event that has been in the media, but you’ve noticed they’re acting differently, gently ask them if something is bothering them and let them know that you’re always available to talk.

Children learn and grow through play so it is normal if they return to playing shortly after having a conversation about a tragic event.

If you are concerned about any of their behaviour, contact us and we can help you explore options to move forward. If you would like seek professional help, call 211 for help connecting to the resource you need.

5. Take care of yourself too.

Having strong emotions surrounding a tragic event is normal for adults too. Make sure you are processing your emotions, and speaking to a family member, friend or a volunteer at Distress Centre when you need support or are feeling overwhelmed by the news.

To support a friend or family member experiencing distress, check out our recent infographic on the subject.

Need support? Talk to us.

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