It seems like every day in the news lately, there’s something about a death, a natural disaster, a shooting or unrest in other parts of the world. As much as we try to protect our children and shield them from anything that is potentially frightening, even if our kids don’t happen to see something on a TV screen, they are still bound to catch a glimpse of a headline or hear a conversation among teachers or even peers. We are all bombarded with media and in today’s world, it’s hard not to become aware of what’s going on around us.
With this kind of exposure to what’s is going on in the world, it’s important to know what to say to children, or even what not to say when something bad happens. An article at the end of last year in Real Simple Magazine presented some valuable perspective for families by providing expert advice on when, how and if to share bad news with children of all different ages when that seemingly unanswerable question pops into your head: What am I going to say to my kids?
“As parents, we want to feel that we can protect our children, so it causes us a lot of stress to have to tell them that the world isn’t perfect and that bad things happen,” says Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety. “And it can be a struggle to explain things that we ourselves don’t understand.”
Of course, when you don’t know what to say, it can be tempting to say nothing at all-and that’s perfectly fine if your children are four or under and the event doesn’t directly affect your family. “At that age, the news is too abstract for kids to understand,” says Linda Whitehead, Ph.D., the vice president of education and development at the national day-care chain Bright Horizons Family Solutions. Just make sure that friends, caregivers, and relatives are in on the plan, too, so that they don’t accidentally tune in to CNN (or talk about what happened) while your child is around.
Once your kids start school and you can no longer control what they see and hear much of the time, it’s important to talk about tragic events with them, so you can frame the facts in an age-appropriate way and answer their questions. Perhaps you’ve improvised (or avoided) these tough conversations. But next time-and, alas, there is always a next time-you can be prepared. Here’s how to broach tragic topics with children of any age.
Ages 5 to 7
Like preschoolers, kids in kindergarten, first grade and second grade live in a world that revolves tightly around themselves, their families and their activities. While they’re unlikely to hear about something from their friends at recess, they might still catch wind of it in the halls or on the school bus, when older children are around.
WHAT TO SAY: If you don’t think your child is at risk of hearing about a tragedy, then it’s OK to continue the news-blackout philosophy that you relied on in the preschool years. Just tell your child that if he ever encounters a scary story-whether it’s in a movie, a book, a story from a friend, or a newspaper headline-he should tell you about it, suggests Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., a family therapist in New York City.
If your child has older friends or siblings who might talk about news events, then you should address the tragedy before your child brings it up. Take a moment to collect yourself and prepare what to say, since you want to comfort your child, not alarm him. “Think of one or two lines that briefly explain what happened, and emphasize that it’s over,” says Chansky. For example, when describing what took place at Sandy Hook, you could say, “A man with a gun shot some children, but the teachers were able to help many others escape. And the police caught the man, so he will never hurt anyone again, and the people who needed help got it.” At this age, it’s OK to soften the news by not giving too many details.
“But if your child then asks, ‘Did any of the kids die?’ be honest and say, ‘Yes, sadly, some of them did,’ ” says Dorfman. Avoid metaphors like “They went to sleep.” Why? “Kids are very literal,” says Dorfman. “A seemingly harmless lie can make them anxious about going to bed.” Ultimately the biggest concern for your children will be the question “Am I safe?” And the best answer to that is “Yes, Mommy and Daddy will always do everything to protect you.” Sometimes parents are hesitant to say that, says Whitehead, “because no one knows with 100 percent certainty that something else won’t happen. But you need to reassure your child.”
End the discussion by asking your kid if he has any questions. And don’t be disturbed if his most pressing query is “Can I have some cheese puffs?” “It takes most kids a while to internalize the news,” says Dorfman, adding that even if kids seem disinterested at first, they may have questions in the future.
BEAR IN MIND: After the conversation, you may well see your child acting out a shooting with his toys or drawing a picture of a plane crash. This kind of behavior is actually a healthy way for kids to work through their feelings, says Whitehead. In other words, don’t fret unless your child displays serious signs of anxiety, such as regressive behaviors like bed-wetting. In that case, ask your pediatrician for a referral to a therapist.
Ages 8 to 11
As kids progress through grade school, they become more aware of the world around them. If bad news breaks during the day, there’s a good chance that they’ll talk about it with their peers.
WHAT TO SAY: At the first opportunity, ask your child what he already knows and how he’s feeling about it. For example: “What did you hear about the hurricane? Is there anything you’re concerned about?” Then correct any inaccuracies. And accept your child’s emotional state, whether he seems sad, worried, or totally indifferent. “Reactions differ based on a child’s temperament, age, and history with sad events,” says Glenn Saxe, M.D., a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine.
Confronted with news of a natural disaster, kids usually worry that a similar event could happen where they live. To quell this concern, deliver facts. Point out that technology helps weather forecasters to predict storms in advance, often giving people time to evacuate, as many did prior to 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. And share your own safety plans, too. Try something like “If a storm is coming, we will go to Grandma’s house, because she doesn’t live near the water.”
Man-made tragedies, such as shootings, are harder to explain. It can help to point out that millions of children go to school safely every day, says Chansky: “Tell your child, ‘One person did a terrible thing, but there are thousands more people working to prevent that kind of terrible thing in the future.’ “
BEAR IN MIND: No matter how carefully you curate the news, your child may accidentally glimpse a gruesome photo that you had hoped he would never see. If you learn that this happened, ask him what he saw, then give him a more concrete story of the photo, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, says Chansky. For example, if your child saw a graphic photo from the Boston Marathon bombing, you could say, “Yes, that man lost his legs, but a lot of people ran to help him, and doctors are working hard to make sure that he can walk again.”
Ages 12 and Up
Hormonal and stressed-out, adolescents are constantly assessing the world and their place in it-and starting to realize that life is not always fair. A catastrophe has the capacity to cement that notion in their minds.
WHAT TO SAY: Instead of just parceling out information to your child, give him an opening to share his own fears and beliefs. Kids this age don’t expect you to have all the answers, nor do they need you to. If you have to break the news, offer a brief summary of what happened, then ask if he wants to learn more about the event online or on TV. Ask him open-ended questions: “How do you think people around the country could help the kids at Sandy Hook Elementary?” or “How do you think the government should respond to the Boston Marathon bombing?”
The only rule: Be genuine. Adolescents can tell when adults are trying to diminish their fears with platitudes or false promises, says Saxe. Avoid saying, “Nothing like this will ever happen here.” Don’t forget that at age 5, 15, or 50, everyone wants to feel safe. Your teen won’t believe that you can protect him in all circumstances, says Saxe, but he’ll feel comforted if you say, “Our job is your safety, and we’ll always do everything possible to keep you safe, no matter what.”
BEAR IN MIND: Like adults, teens develop strong opinions about current events, and you may not always agree with them. The more you and your teen share your feelings, the more polarized your viewpoints on hot-button topics, like gun control and national security, may become. If you notice a chasm forming, “tell your child that there are many different ways to look at each situation and that two people who respect and love each other can disagree,” says Dorfman.
Forces for Good
Can you help your kids to feel hopeful instead of helpless? Yes-by encouraging them to make the world a better place, says psychologist Tamar Chansky. Learn how the families of Real Simple readers responded to tragic news with positive action:
- Ask for Donations
“After the Moore, Oklahoma, tornadoes in June, my kids, then nine and six, collected hundreds of stuffed animals from other kids and their own bedrooms and sent them to children who had lost everything. They’re still seeking donations for the victims through their website” -Jason Wright, Woodstock, Virginia
- Buy Necessities
“I took my kids, then ages six and eight, to buy backpacks and fill them with school supplies, pajamas, clothes, toiletries, and games after Hurricane Katrina. We mailed them to Houston, where so many people from New Orleans were taking refuge.” -Crystal Owensby, Lumberton, New Jersey
- Write a Letter
“A few weeks after Sandy Hook, my daughter, then nine, wrote a letter to President Obama and asked him to pass laws that would require people to be tested for mental-health issues before they were allowed to buy guns. We were very proud of her for taking action.” -Meredith Simpson, New York City
- Lend a Hand
“At age 15, my amazing niece joined a church group that headed out for a week in the Midwest to help rebuild houses that had been destroyed by tornadoes.” -Ruth Bacher, Pittsburgh
- Offer a Simple “Thank You”
“I live in the town where the Boston Marathon bombing suspect was found in a boat. Now, every time we pass a police officer or a firefighter, my kids, ages three and five, wave and say hi as a way of acknowledging what they did to protect us.” -Lisa Parsons, Watertown, Massachusetts