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How to Talk to a Child about Tragic Events

Press Release

On Sunday 5 November, a lone gunman opened fire on worshippers at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. It was the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history. The perpetrator was eventually stopped but not before he had gunned down least 26 people, including children.

Five days earlier, on 31 October, innocent people in New York were the target of an attack when a local man drove a rental truck down a crowded bicycle path close to the World Trade Centre. The attack only ended when the man crashed into a school bus. Luckily, none of the children on the bus were killed, but they will undoubtedly be traumatized.

These events did not happen in isolation. Mass shootings and other violent events are common in America. In June, another gunman unleashed an arsenal of automatic weapons on crowds attending a country music festival in Las Vegas. 58 people died in the bloodbath. There have been several such tragedies in recent years.

The World is Full of Tragic Events

Children, understandably, want to know why these things happen. Such events may make children feel scared and worried that something of this nature might affect them.

The Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting is among the nation’s deadliest mass shootings. Those children were dropped off at school that morning with the expectation it would be just another day. Sadly, 26 children and teachers never made it home.

The Texas Church massacre, like Sandy Hook, was not an isolated event. In 2015, a white supremacist gunman opened fire on worshippers at a Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston. Nine people died, including the pastor. In 2007, 32 students were murdered by a senior at Virginia Tech University.

In the weeks and months that passed, these communities came together to remember, to heal, and to try and understand why someone would commit such a violent act. But how do you make sense of something that is, at its heart, senseless?

A parent’s instinct is to protect their children from harm. When bad things happen, we want to wrap our children up in our arms and reassure them nothing so awful will ever happen to them. We want to tell them what happened was a one-off. But these things rarely are one-off events.

The truth is, we can’t lie to our children. We can’t absolutely promise that they will be safe or that tragedies like these will never happen again. But what we need to remember is that such events are rare. Parents can comfort their children by reminding them that terrible events don’t happen that often.

Tragic Events and the Media

Tragedy is part of life, but the internet and social media beam tragic, often graphic events directly into our living rooms. This makes it virtually impossible to prevent children from the seeing or hearing about the horror of a mass shooting or a terrorist attack. When such an event happens, parents are faced with a huge dilemma.

Social media and the global nature of news reports amplify bad news. Listening and watching repetitive news stories about a tragic event can make it feel as if such attacks happen far more frequently than they actually do.

It’s impossible to completely shield children—or ourselves—from the seemingly-constant barrage of negative news that media outlets publish, but we can help them develop a balanced perspective. It is essential that parents explain to their kids the way the news works, that media outlets often perceive tragedy and negativity as key criteria for a story to be “newsworthy.”

Make sure your child knows that even though it might seem like tragic events happen every minute of every day, mass shootings and terrorist attacks are not normal.

What to Say After a Tragic Event

While you can’t lie to your kids and tell them nothing bad will ever happen, you can comfort and reassure them. Explain to your children what is being done to keep them safe. Talk about how things are being done to ensure such an event doesn’t happen again. For example, schools now have security measures in place to prevent unauthorized people entering the building.

Parents need to listen to their children. Take their fears seriously and don’t dismiss their anxieties. If they express concern that something bad might happen to them, their friends, or their family, listen and try to find something comforting to say.

It is also important that you don’t overreact to tragic events. Children take their cues from adults, so if you are anxious, scared, and paranoid, your children will believe there is something to fear and react accordingly. Even if you are afraid, put on a brave face for your children. If you can manage your anxieties, your children will be less afraid.

Don’t be afraid to express sadness at the event. Talk about how tragic events make you feel sad and that it’s okay to feel sad when bad things happen. Tell your children it’s okay for them to feel afraid and that they can talk to you if they are upset, fearful, or anxious. If you try to shut down negative emotions, your child won’t have any way of dealing with their feelings in a positive way.

Talking About Tragedy in an Age-Appropriate Manner

Talk to your children in an age-appropriate manner. Very young children don’t need to know the details of what happened. Give them the basic facts and try to shield them from excessive media coverage, as it is often graphic. Stick to the child’s normal routine, as they will find this reassuring.

Older children aged between 6 and 11 should also have their exposure to media coverage limited where possible. Violent images can have a long-lasting effect on a child’s mind and it can cause increased levels of anxiety.

How to Tell a Child About Death

Tragic events often result in death. Depending on the age of the child, he or she may be exposed to the concept of death for the first time after hearing about a tragedy.

Parents often find it hard to talk to their kids about death, but death is part of life, and it shouldn’t be brushed under the carpet. Be honest and direct about what death is. Try not to use euphemisms or analogies that may confuse them about the finality of death.

Make sure they understand that death is sad, but it’s a normal part of life. Be ready to listen and answer any questions they may have, as death may be a difficult concept for them grasp. Also, remember that conversations about death can happen over time. Children often learn best when the amount of information is manageable and repeated in small sessions.

Although tragic events are an unfortunate part of life, they are an opportunity to teach your child effective coping strategies they can rely on as they progress into adulthood. However, if your child is exhibiting signs of excessive anxiety, or you notice marked changes in their behavior or temperament, it may be wise to seek professional help.