8 tips for talking with children about a tragedy

A mother holding her son's hand his reassuring, comforting, and encouraging him.

If you or a loved one need to talk with a counselor now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), a free, 24-hour line available to anyone in emotional distress. You can also reach the Lifeline using the short dialing code: 988.

Suicide. Loved ones struggling with mental illness or addiction. School shootings. War. Natural disasters. Talking with children about painful topics is difficult, but helping them cope with and process tragedies can improve their state of mind.

To lay the groundwork, parents should focus on talking with their child about other subjects before a tragedy occurs, according to Dr. Jill Amos, a licensed behavioral health psychologist for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

“Communicating about difficult subjects is easier and more natural when you’re talking often about many things with your child,” Dr. Amos says. “When a child feels that they are understood, they are more likely to either disclose a concern or open up when you gently inquire about a difficult subject.”

Talk before you have the conversation

Dr. Amos: Most of us would rather not talk about tragedies or painful experiences, particularly with our children. But it’s necessary in today’s world. It’s hard to hear your child express pain and fear, so try to make sure you are in a “good” place to have this kind of talk. If you need to seek out some help and support for yourself, do so.

You might also watch your children closely for their reactions to tragedy. Very young children may feel overwhelmed and may have trouble using words to express what they’re feeling. Meanwhile, school-aged children may be worried about their safety or fret about whether they could have done anything to help. Older kids and teens may show signs of anger, fear or start engaging in risky behaviors.

You might notice your children losing some developmental progress, too, in the wake of a tragedy. They may also have physical symptoms, like nightmares, insomnia, stomachaches, and headaches.

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Tips for talking with your children

Dr. Amos: When you do sit down and have a talk with your child, here is some guidance that may help you:

  1. Remember your child’s age when having these conversations. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends having developmentally appropriate conversations. Young children only need brief, simple explanations. Your job is to understand that and respect it.
  2. Choose the right time to have a talk. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network suggests not trying to have a big, hard conversation right before bedtime when your child is tired. Try to find a time when no one is feeling rushed.
  3. Start by asking what they’ve heard. Don’t assume that you know what your child has heard. After you hear what they have to say, follow up by asking how they feel about it and if they have any questions.
  4. Don’t push them to talk. If your child isn’t ready to talk yet, that’s okay. Don’t insist. Let them know you’re ready to listen when they’re ready to talk.
  5. Validate their feelings. Their emotions may be all over the map. Reassure your child that their feelings are normal. Listen to what they say and help them express their feelings appropriately, if necessary.
  6. Share your feelings, too. It’s okay to let your child know that you’re sad or upset, too. You can be a good role model by expressing your sadness or frustration in healthy ways.
  7. Watch for signs that your child is ready to stop talking. Pay attention to signs that your child has talked all they can for now. You can end the conversation by saying you’re glad that you had this talk and you can talk again later when they’re ready. Ask them if there’s an activity they’d like to do, which will help them return to a more comfortable place.
  8. Watch for signs to restart the conversation, too. You can restart the conversation later by saying something like, “You know, I was thinking about what you told me the other day, and it made me wonder if you have thought about things more, too.”

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Keep the conversation going

Dr. Amos: Let your child know that you are always available to talk to them about anything. Keeping those lines of communication open can be very reassuring to a child or teen.

Communication is a means to create a safe relationship for children. As a parent, you can help your child feel comfortable about sharing their concerns by consistently listening to their thoughts and feelings about a variety of subjects.

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Jennifer Larson

Jennifer Larson is Nashville-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience. She specializes in health care and family issues.

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