Explaining the unexplainable: Talking to your kids about tragedy

Updated: Jun 27, 2018

A 10-year-old child comes home from a friend’s house and tells her mother she doesn’t ever want to go to a concert.

“Why?” mom says.

“Because Hannah’s parents were talking about the shooting in Las Vegas, and Hannah’s dad said people can’t go to any large concerts or big events anymore because it’s dangerous.”

It’s hard to know what to say when children want explanations for seemingly inexplicable events. Even we as adults struggle to understand events like the recent tragedy in Las Vegas, so imagine how hard it must be for a child to comprehend.

Even so, it’s best to acknowledge it happened. If we refuse to talk about it, this suggests the event is too horrible to even mention – which makes it even more threatening in a child’s mind, according to experts from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN). The key is to give a child the right information – without sharing so many details that it provokes anxiety.

Becky Kopp-Dunham is a licensed independent clinical social worker who specializes in trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy at Abound Counseling, a program of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota.

Kopp-Dunham, along with the NCTSN, offers tips on ways parents and caregivers can help their children navigate through these difficult times.  

•  Discover what your child knows. Before assuming anything, find out what your child has heard or seen about the incident.This is your chance to gently correct misconceptions while listening for underlying fears or concerns. If some of the information seems surprising or misleading, explore a bit. You might say: “Tell me more about that.” Try to set the record straight in a calm, non-judgmental way. The child is apt to cope better if you make sure they have the right information and have time to process the incident with you or another trusted adult.

•  Let them know they’re safe. Your child may ask difficult questions. They may want to know if this could happen in your workplace or if it likely to reoccur again. Ultimately, what they are trying to discern is if they are safe. While you’ll want to acknowledge that recurrence isn’t impossible, it’s also important to remind them that people attend thousands of large events around the world every day without incident and one reason this is so newsworthy is because it is so unusual. Don’t shame them for worrying, but let them know that, in this particular case, everyone in the family is safe and sound right now. Also remind them that many adults are working to keep them safe, including parents, caregivers, teachers and law enforcement.

Children also might be reassured by being reminded of the positive side of human nature. Kopp-Dunham refers to the famous Fred Rogers quote: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

•  Keep explanations age-appropriate. Children will react differently, depending on their developmental stage. Even children under age 2 may pick up on your stress, although they can’t verbalize it. “We bring it down to the child and their age level, rather than making it this giant statement that the world is unsafe,” Kopp-Dunham says. “That’s completely overwhelming to them.”

Click HERE for a complete list of ways that children in different age groups may express their fears and how to address them accordingly.

•  Limit media exposure. Children have access to so many different sources of information these days it can be easy for them to feel overwhelmed. As for very young children, NCTSN advises against letting them see or hear any of the messages at all. Be aware that even if a child seems to be absorbed in play, they are aware of what you are listening to or watching.

•  Anticipate what your child might need. Parents are the experts on their children, so they already know if a child tends to be sensitive or anxious, Kopp-Dunham says. In those cases, parents will want to be especially mindful of what they’re going through, and take extra precautions – such as limiting media exposure, encouraging them to ask questions and reassuring them that they are safe.

•  Encourage a creative outlet.  If your child has trouble verbalizing their concerns, encourage them – but don't force them – [to create something. They can draw pictures, build with Legos or even jot down feelings. “Sometimes it’s doing something while they’re talking that helps facilitate that flow of expression, or sometimes it’s the journaling itself that is actually getting that out,” Kopp-Dunham says.

Afterward, talk to the child about what they’ve created, being as empathetic and compassionate as possible.

•   Avoid statements like: “Stop thinking about it.” “All it does is shut them down,” Kopp-Dunham says. “It tells them to stop talking about it but it doesn’t stop them from thinking about it. It doesn’t give them that sacred space that gives them an opportunity to talk about those feelings.”

•  Let them feel like they have some control. It’s a good time to let them think about what things they CAN control. Teenagers may find the disaster mobilizing and want to help. In that case, you can encourage them to research the best ways to help – whether that be by joining a drive to send supplies to hurricane victims or sending money to Las Vegas survivors. 

Such activities also build an essential human quality: empathy.

“We can’t turn a blind eye to what happens in this world either,” Kopp-Dunham says. “Raising people who care about what’s happening in other parts of the world is what we want – that’s compassion.”

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