Talking with Kids of All Ages about Tragedy

As a parent, how do you explain an event as tragic as the Connecticut school shooting to a child, when you can hardly make sense of it yourself? All of the experts say to talk to your child in an “age-appropriate” way, but what does that really mean? The most important part of discussing tragedy with your kids is to be genuine – allow your children to see your emotions, whether they include sadness, guilt, anger, fear, confusion or anything else. However, the catch is to show them emotion in a healthy manner, which means with some restraint. The worst thing you can do is to allow your emotions to become a flood and lose control, thus putting your child in the position of having to comfort you. The goal of any talk with your child when it comes to an event so frightening is to promote a sense of safety and security. Here are some tips for talking with children of all ages about difficult events:

Birth to about 2 years old

While children this age will have no understanding of WHAT has happened, they WILL recognize that SOMETHING is not right. Infants feed off of the emotions and mental state of their caretakers and those closest to them, so if you are stressed, your infant will understand that. He or she will notices changes in the routine or emotional atmosphere, so it is important for you to work to make these things as consistent as possible for the sake of your infant. Security is of the utmost importance to babies, so be sure to provide a lot of physical affection to instill a sense of safety.

About 3 to 5 years old

Children this age will also have difficulty understanding what has happened, but if they hear others talking about tragic events or view media coverage, they will understand enough to be scared. For that reason, turn off the television! Children do not fully grasp the concept of time during this stage in development, and they may believe that the event is continuing to happen over and over again if they continue to see coverage of the event. Your child will notice changes in your emotional state and routines, just as infants do, so consistency is key. If you notice that your child is acting differently or seems distressed, maybe because of trouble sleeping or eating, or acting out behaviors or isolating, then ask him or her what is going on. Find out what he or she has heard and try to understand your child’s own understanding of the events that have occurred. You do not need to correct information for accuracy or fill in information gaps – you just need to respond to the questions and information your child presents. Once again, you need to focus on helping your child feel safe and secure through physical affection and reassuring words, such as: “I know that what happened is scary, and I want you to know that your dad, and your grandma and grandpa, and I are going to keep you safe and we love you very much.”

About 6 to 11 years old

Children in this developmental stage understand that what has happened is not morally right and that death is final. The naturally egocentric tendency at this age is going to lead your child to have more questions about how this event impacts him or her: How and when can it happen to him? Will she do something that causes it? Will his family be sad if he gets hurt? What will happen to her if she dies? Once again, your job as a parent is to open up the discussion. Find out what your child knows and what questions he or she has, but do not add to their information about the topic. You can correct information that is related to safety or love (e.g. “They died because their parents didn’t love them.”), but other inaccuracies are usually irrelevant. When talking with kids of this age, you want to continue to reassure them of their safety, not only by describing to them the ways that you keep them safe, but by giving examples and helping them to take control of the situation by listing ways, as well. For example: “I know it was very scary to see that on TV, and I want you to know that we are going to keep you safe. That’s why we want to know where you are when you go play with your friends, and why we look through the peephole in our door before we let someone in, and why we tell you to give the phone to mommy or daddy when an adult calls that you don’t know. What are other ways you can think of that help us all stay safe? Who are the other adults in your life who keep you safe?” And again, turn off the media coverage! If you don’t know how to respond to a question your child asks, it’s okay to say that you don’t know. Be honest and genuine in your responses, but recognize when your instincts tell you that the information you’re sharing could increase fear or worry, instead of reinforcing a sense of safety.

About 12 years and up

Teenagers have a very adult understanding of tragic events overall. They realize the tragic circumstances that have occurred, what it means when a person dies in such a violent and unexpected manner, and that they themselves may be vulnerable to experiencing such events. However, teens also tend to have a feeling of immortality in that developmental stage, which can make it difficult for them to reconcile their own potential encounter with aggressive acts. It can be difficult to monitor your teen’s viewing of media coverage in the era of cell phones and internet, but turn off the coverage when it is in your control, such as during dinnertime. Invite your teen to talk about the events, but do not push the conversation. Say something like, “I would imagine it was difficult to go to school today, or might have felt somewhat scary. I know that I was feeling worried when I dropped you off this morning, even though I know your school does everything they can to keep you safe. If you’d like to talk about what happened in Connecticut, I’m always here to listen.” And then do just that – listen! Your reassurances of safety, while still important, will not be as believable to a teen who recognizes that nothing is certain. Allow him or her to share their worries or fears or concerns, and do not minimize or judge them. Validate their emotions, reflect your own similar feelings, and guide them in coming to their own “best” way of dealing with the events that have occurred, whether that might be journaling, making a healing collage to send to Sandy Hook Elementary School, or attending classes to learn about self-defense.

Taking care of your kids is important in times of tragedy, and keep in mind that taking care of yourself is just as important as a parent. You cannot give all that you have to your children if you do not replenish your own needs. Find support in friends, family and community organizations. Take time to grieve and express concerns. Give yourself permission to prioritize your life differently for awhile in order to reassure your own sense of safety with your family (maybe a family waffle-making morning is more important than cleaning the house this week). Remember what is truly important to you, and live your life in accordance.

About Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is an adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist who provides mental health support focused on adoption, trauma, and racial identity work. She is the author of the "Adoptees Like Me" book series.