Sometimes tragedy becomes inescapable. It may hit our families, our neighborhoods or our hearts and be hard to process – especially for children. Atrium Health Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Dr. Crystal Bullard offers some helpful advice for parents to help children understand difficult situations and how to cope with these events.

Child Health, News | 3 years ago

11 Tips on How to Talk to Kids Following a Tragedy

Sometimes tragedy becomes inescapable. It may hit our families, our neighborhoods or our hearts and be hard to process – especially for children. Atrium Health Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Crystal Bullard, MD, offers some helpful advice for parents to help children understand difficult situations and how to cope with these events.

From mass shootings to suicides, natural disasters and acts of terror, turning on the tv, going online or scrolling through your phone can be like navigating a minefield of tragic headlines, intense videos and endless opinions.

It’s important for parents to not only monitor what their child is reading, watching and absorbing (and what’s appropriate for their age level), but making sure they’re able to process and understand difficult situations.

My best advice in talking with parents is to be honest with them but explain things in a child-friendly way,” says Crystal Bullard, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Atrium Health.

Dr. Bullard provides 11 talking points for parents to help start a dialogue with their child and keep these lines of communication open.

Question No. 1: What’s the best way for parents to communicate to talk about scary or bad news? For example, when tragedies occur, how do you explain to your child what happened?

Answer: You tell them sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes people do things to hurt other people. We don’t always understand why these things happen but when these events occur we can help those that have been hurt or the families that have lost a loved one.

Q2: How much do you explain what happened?

A: This depends on the age of the child and how much you think they can understand. A parent should first determine what their child already knows by asking them what they’ve heard or seen. Begin with a very basic explanation and then let the conversation evolve based on your child’s level of understanding.

Q3: And how are you still able to “protect” them from some of the worst details?

A: This is very difficult to do with children’s access to the media but parents can limit media exposure. The media will often replay footage of a scene which makes the event seem to last longer, with more severity and intensity. From a child’s perspective, this can make a tragedy seem worse than it actually was. Therefore, limit how much time a child spends watching the news or using social media to limit overexposure to the event. Although parents can’t “protect” their children from everything, the parent is the primary source for interpreting the media. Generally, the parent’s opinion and interpretation is the one that is most valued.

Q4: Do you have an age where you think kids/teens are able to process these situations or are they based on each child’s maturity level?

A: In general, it is more difficult for children and teenagers to process traumatic information than it is for an adult and we must keep that in mind. Children generally begin developing the understanding of logic and reasoning around age 7. At age 11, they begin developing the ability to understand more abstract and complex concepts such as the concept of justice. Still same age children can vary greatly based on their intellect, learning capabilities and life experience. Therefore, it is best to provide a general explanation and then expand upon the details based on the child’s response. Young children may hear your explanation and then move on. Others may start asking more questions and want a more detailed explanation.

Q5: If a tragedy happens in your community, do you talk about it differently than if it happened somewhere else?

A: Yes, you may talk about it differently simply because it is closer to home. You may know people personally that have been affected by the tragedy. There is a greater sense of responsibility to do something to help your neighbors and your community. This can be used as an opportunity to teach your child the value of helping others. This in turn helps everyone cope better with the tragedy. Communities function best when people work together, neighbor helping neighbor. Donate to a fundraiser or volunteer your time as a family.

Q6: How much is too much when it comes to exposure to the news or tragic events? Is it inevitable they will hear it from somewhere and therefore better to talk about it before they hear it from another source other than parents?

A: I do think it’s best to talk about major events at home before children hear it from somewhere else. If a child first hears about a tragic event at school, they will often come home and ask their parents about it. You cannot shield your child from hearing about tragic events but as the parent your job is to interpret it for them. Limit excess exposure to the traumatic event. Repetitive images and stories can make the danger seem close to home and more frequent than it actually occurs. I suggest making effort to balance negative news with positive news.

Q7: What are some good ways to “talk about it” or “process” the news? Are there some words or phrases to include?

A: All children have basic needs including love, nurture and protection. During discussions about traumatic events, take time to remind them that that you love them and are there to protect them. Provide reassurance that they are safe.

Q8: Are there words or phrases to avoid?

A: Avoid making generalizations about people. Instead of calling someone a bad person, explain “sometimes people do bad things.” Talk in a calm manner and avoid appearing frightened. Children reflect their parent’s emotions. If they recognize you are afraid, this will make them more anxious and frightened.

Q9: What are the best ways to establish and keep open communication with your child so they feel they can talk with you about these difficult subjects?

A: Let your child know you have an invested interest in their life and you want to help them work through any problems they encounter. Encourage your child to come to you with any questions or concerns. Watch or read the news together to initiate conversations. Encourage open communication about feelings and emotions. Explain it is OK to feel upset or to cry.

Q10: Is it OK sometimes if a child doesn’t want to talk? Or if they prefer to talk to another parent, sibling or friend about an issue?

A: I think it’s OK for a child to process their thoughts with other people. This gives them a chance to see other perspectives and especially for teens, they learn how to formulate their understanding of the world. However, parents should have some discretion and monitor who influences their children, especially when they are very young. Sometimes parents are not together and have opposing views. These parents should work together to avoid confusing their child or adding more distress.

Q11: What are the best forms of communication? Does it have to be face to face or can electronic communication work just as good? 

A: Electronic communication does not work as well as face-to-face conversations. Information can be misinterpreted when read on a text message. The reader must interpret the message without tone of voice, facial expressions and body language. This can lead to misinterpretations. It is best to discuss important topics face-to-face.