Talking with Children About Tragic Events

Categories: Still Standing

Talking to Child About Tragedy

I had a friend text me last week and ask my opinion on what age to talk with children about tragedies such as Las Vegas mass shooting. She’s asking my professional and personal opinion as I’m a clinical social worker and a mom of two teenagers. Her twin daughters are 9 and still somewhat sheltered from the news and happenings in the world. My answer to her; If you think your children are going to hear news from peers at school or from activities outside the home, please tell them the news. In my opinion, it is much better for our children to hear from their parents first. This way, you get to decide what information you tell your children based on their age and understanding. You also are the safe adult your child trusts and they can ask questions or tell you how they feel.

At dinner this evening with my children, we discussed recent lock down drills at school and the mass shooting in Las Vegas. As we talked, they both strategized where they would want to be in school if there was an active shooter. My daughter hopes she’s not in Spanish class because she sits right by the door. My son thinks his Media class would be the safest due to it’s location.  REALLY?! I cannot believe this is the world we live in. I want my dinner conversations with my children to be about their happenings, family plans, and time to enjoy each other after a long day of being out in the world. Of course we still have those moments, but it’s just sad that the realities of our world mean we have these tough conversations with our children, more regularly than I’d like.

So here’s some suggestions to parents or adults who are helping youth navigate these situations.

  1. Be honest. Let children know facts such as, “A man in Las Vegas shot many people at a concert. He is no longer alive and the Police are investigating. Unfortunately, many people died and a lot of Americans are sad at this news”.
  2. You can decide on how much detail you give based on your child’s age. For younger, only give basic information and always end with letting your child know that they are safe.  If you have older children, like mine, engage them in conversation and let them explore their feelings and concerns. Also, with any age group, you can let your kids know they may hear more about this at school and if they have any questions they should talk with you at home about it. Always encourage asking questions.
  3. Limit your child’s media exposure. With repeated exposure to the news, children have a difficult time differentiating if it is old news or new. Continued exposure is soaking into their brain and can have a negative impact on their thoughts and feelings.
  4. Pay attention to your child’s behavior and mood after such tragic events. It is normal to see an increase of fear, worry, or questions from your children. However, if this continues it is a good idea to seek support from a mental health provider.
  5. Resume to daily routines. Depending on how a tragic event effects your family personally, this may take some time. If your family does experience a direct loss, you may want to find grief support in your community to process the loss and work through stages of grief.  However, if there is not personal connection to loss, it is best to resume to daily routines as soon as possible. This helps children adjust and gives them an outlet to focus on themselves and their responsibilities.
  6. Connect with other parents for support. Ask friends how they are doing and talk about parenting strategies. Help each other navigate the complexities of tragedy and parenting. It is good to connect with others so that you do not feel alone in the parenting journey.

It is my hope this helps you think through how to talk with your child and I sincerely hope this is the last such article I write. Also, just as the news is continuing to talk about the heroes and first responders, let us also focus on all the good in the world and continue to do our part to create safe families and communities.

Cheryl Hazek Headshot

Cheryl Hazek, LCSW
Children’s Mental Health Consultant
YWCA Metropolitan Chicago