Long Island Behavioral Psychology

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Talking to Children About Tragedy

With another school shooting out of Florida, there’s been a lot to worry about in the news lately. Often, parents discuss scary news in our homes, around our children, working under the assumption that their children aren’t following along with the conversation. Children, however, are very tuned into their parents’ feelings – their facial expressions, and tone, as well as what they say to other people or what they’re watching on the news.  All the more so, children tend to internalize information, putting themselves at the center of scary events, and personalizing them. They are much more likely to think about the impact that an overseas war might have on them, worrying about their own safety, and if their home could be next.  What’s the best way to address scary news with a child?

Find out what your child knows

Don’t assume your child has information already, and conversely, don’t assume that he or she “must have heard,” particularly if the child is under 6 or 7 years old. A good tip is to start a dialogue using open-ended questions (“have you heard anything about Florida lately?”) Using questions, both initially as well as to follow up, gives you as the adult a chance to find out what a child knows without giving them information that might make them more worried. It allows the child to tell you what’s on their mind and tells them that they’re being heard. Help them label what they’re feeling, and validate those emotions. It’s okay to feel sad, scared or angry. Negative emotions are part of life too.

Keep it simple and age appropriate

Give the child the information that they need in language that is appropriate to them. They don’t need to know all the details, and a few sentences may be enough.  The “right amount of information” will vary based on the individual child, as well as their age.  While a young child might be reassured to know that a plane crash is far away and that they’re safe, an older one might want more information about how planes work, and what steps are being taken to prevent a crash closer to home.  Either way…

Focus on safety

Because children focus on their own perspective and how events affect them, it is important to provide reassurance that they are safe. Be specific about why your home or neighborhood is different, and the steps the adults are taking to maintain their safety. Remember that actions speak louder than words – adults need to model feeling safe with how they act, not only how they talk. Keep the worries for your spouse or friends after your children are safely in bed, not when they’re playing a few feet away but you assume they aren’t listening.

Finally, turn it off

Children do not understand the news the same way adults do. Replays of the same horrific close-up of an injured child can often make a child think that the event is occurring over and over. Don’t assume your child isn’t paying attention just because they’re doing something else. Turn off the TV or radio while your children are awake, and monitor your own reactions.  




Regine Galanti