How to talk with children and help them cope with tragedies in our community and on the news

How to talk with children and help them cope with tragedies in our community and on the news

In the aftermath of tragic events, families often wonder how to best support their children and help them cope with painful news.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages parents, teachers, child care providers, and others who work closely with children to filter information about traumatic events and present information in ways that their child can understand, adjust to and handle in a healthy way.

Begin by asking your child what they already know or have seen and heard.

When tragic events gain media attention, it is likely that children have already heard something about them. That’s a good to place to start. Ask them what they know or have seen and try to find out where they are getting that information. After listening to understand, ask them how they feel about what has happened. Let your child know that their feelings are valid and that you are here to support them.

Ask them if they have any more questions before offering new information.

Older children, teens, and young adults may ask for and benefit from additional information. But regardless of your child’s age, it's best to keep your conversation straightforward and direct.

Limit exposure to graphic details and visuals.

While children want information to understand what’s going on, it’s best to avoid graphic information and images. Keep younger children away from repetitive graphic scenes and sounds on the television, radio, social media and websites. If you regularly view news coverage with your older children, the AAP recommends pre-recording the segments so that you can screen them before deciding if they’re appropriate to watch together. Before beginning the program, ask your child if they would like to watch it with you and let them decide if it’s something they can handle.

Provide age-appropriate information.

The best way for your child to learn about a major crisis event is to hear it first from you or another parent, caregiver or loved one. Assume that if you don’t talk to them, they will learn about what’s happening some other way, even if they are only pre-school aged. Provide accurate information, answer questions as they arise and reiterate that you are here to support your child with any feelings they experience.

Parents who have a child with a developmental delay or disability should gear their responses to their child's developmental level or abilities, rather than their chronologic age. If your child has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), tailor to their specific needs and try to prepare for the discussion in a way that you know is calming or most comforting for them.

Discuss your family safety plan and trusted sources of information.

After you and your child have processed feelings, consider having a discussion about the reliability (or lack thereof) of the different types of information that we encounter in our lives. These days, misinformation abounds and it is useful for parents to discuss with their kids the difference between legitimate sources of information (possibly teachers, mentors, reputable news sites, etc.) and likely sources of misinformation (many social media outlets). A great place to have that conversation regarding information sources is when families discuss what they can do to remain safe in their community. Any conversation around establishing safety protocols should include knowing who your trusted sources of information are. 

Watch for signs of stress.

You may see signs that your child is having difficulty coping with recent events. Some of the things to look for are:

  • increased arguing and irritability
  • increased whining or crying
  • prolonged periods of sadness, worry, anxiety or fear
  • physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches
  • sleeping problems including trouble falling or staying asleep, difficulty waking up, nightmares or other sleep disturbances
  • changes in eating habits
  • in teens, turning to tobacco, alcohol or other substance use

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if a child is reacting in a typical way to an unusual event or whether they need extra support. If you are concerned, talk to your child's pediatrician, your child's teacher, or a mental health professional or counselor in the school or community.

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