Talking to Children About Tragedies & Other News Events- healthychildren.org
After any disaster or crisis, families struggle with what they should say to children and what’s best not to share with them.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages parents, teachers, child care providers, and others who work closely with children to filter information about the event and present it in a way that their child can understand, adjust to, and cope with.
Where to Start – All Ages
No matter what age or developmental stage the child is, parents can start by asking a child what they’ve already heard. Most children will have heard something, no matter how old they are. After you ask them what they’ve heard, ask what questions they have.
Older children, teens, and young adults might ask more questions and may request and benefit more from additional information. But no matter what age the child is, it’s best to keep the dialogue straightforward and direct.
Avoiding Graphic Details & Exposure to Media
In general, it is best to share basic information with children, not graphic details, or unnecessary details about tragic circumstances. Children and adults alike want to be able to understand enough so they know what’s going on. Graphic information and images should be avoided.
Talking to Very Young Children
The reality is that even children as young as 4 years old will hear about major crisis events. It’s best that they hear about it from a parent or caregiver, as opposed to another child or in the media.
Even the youngest child needs accurate information, but you don’t want to be too vague. Simply saying, “Something happened in a faraway town and some people got hurt,” doesn’t tell the child enough about what happened. The child may not understand why this is so different from people getting hurt every day and why so much is being said about it. The underlying message for a parent to convey is, “It’s okay if these things bother you. We are here to support each other.”
Talking to Gradeschool Children & Teens
After asking your child what they have heard and if they have questions about what occurred during a school shooting, community bombing, natural disaster, or even a disaster in an international country, a parent can say something such as:
“Yes. In [city], [state]” (and here you might need to give some context, depending on whether it’s nearby or far away, for example, ‘That’s a city/state that’s pretty far from/close to here’), there was disaster and many people were hurt. The police and the government are doing their jobs so they can try to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
A parent can follow-up as needed based on the child’s reactions and questions.
Talking to Children with Developmental Delays or Disabilities
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 physical, age. If you have a teenage child whose level of intellectual functioning is more similar to a 7-year-old, for instance, gear your response toward their developmental level. Start by giving less information. Provide details or information in the most appropriate and clear way you can.
Talking to Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
What’s helpful to a child with an ASD may be different. For instance, the child may find less comfort in cuddling than some other children. Parents should use methods that have worked in the past to calm and comfort their child. Ask yourself, “Given who my child is, his personality, temperament, and developmental abilities, what might work for him?”
Signs a Child Might Not Be Coping Well
If children haven’t had many other opportunities to practice healthy coping mechanisms in the past, they might have difficulty adjusting to these new stressors. This can manifest in many ways. Some things to look for are:
Sleep problems: Watch for trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, difficulty waking, nightmares, or other sleep disturbances.
Physical complaints: Children may complain of feeling tired, having a headache, or generally feeling unwell. You may notice your child eating too much or less than usual.
Changes in behavior: Look for signs of regressive behavior, including social regression, acting more immature, or becoming less patient and more demanding. A child who once separated easily from her parents may become clingy. Teens may begin or change current patterns of tobacco, alcohol, or substance use.
Emotional problems: Children may experience undue sadness, depression, anxiety, or fears.
Sometimes it can be hard to tell if a child is reacting in a typical way to an unusual event, or whether they are having real problems coping and might need extra support. If you are concerned, talk to your provider at Kids First Pediatrics! Raleigh: 919-250-3478, Clayton: 919-267-1499
Don’t wait for the signs. Start the discussion early, and keep the dialogue going.
More Information on HealthyChildren.org:
How to Help Children Build Resilience During Uncertain Times
Responding to Children’s Emotional Needs During Times of Crisis
Communicating with Children and Families: From Everyday Interactions to Skill in Conveying Distressing Information (AAP.org)
Tips for Talking to Children After a Disaster (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)
Help in Times of Crisis (National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement)
Catastrophic Mass Violence Resources (National Child Traumatic Stress Network)
Tips for Talking to Children in Trauma (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)
How to Help Kids Cope After a Disaster (eHealthMD)