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Talking to Children About Tragedy

Our hearts all ache for the tragic school shooting in Connecticut. 

Even as an adult, coping with this recent shooting at a elementary school is difficult – difficult to understand and difficult to explain.  For children, coping with the news can be equally as hard, but children’s emotional needs are different from adults.  They need to be able rely upon their adult leaders for comfort.  

Helping a child cope with tragedy can be broken down into three main components.

  1. Keep your emotions under control when talking to your child about the incident.  Children can immediately read your feelings.  This is why it is so important for you to remain calm and emotionally in control, while still showing appropriate sadness.  When talking to a child about tragedy, stay focused on the child’s needs.  Additionally, when children are in the room, be very aware of how and what you say to other adults about the tragedy.  Children internalize everything they hear whether or not you are speaking directly to them.
  2. Let the child lead the conversation.  Do not assume what the child knows or what they are concerned about.  An easy way to do this is to open your conversation with a question such as “What do you know about the incident and what do you wonder (instead of worry) about?”  If the child has inaccurate facts, consider correcting them only if they are worse than actual events without being too specific about details not relevant to the child.
  3. Reassure the child.  The job of an adult in a child’s life, including parents, teachers, coaches, principals, and scout leaders, is to keep children safe.  Remind the child that these events, while extremely unfortunate, happen very rarely.  Impress upon them that you trust that their school is safe because the adults are focused on making it that way. 

It is always a good idea to monitor and limit children’s exposure to media discussion about violent or tragic incidents.  Of course, they will likely still hear about the issues at school, so it is prudent to be prepared for questions.  Additionally, children who have experienced tragedy or loss may be more sensitive to bad news and have special needs. 

For additional information on talking to children about tragedy, visit the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Melissa Johnson, PhD, is a pediatric developmental psychologist helping our pediatric patients and their families heal from illness and injury.  WakeMed is one of the largest providers of pediatric care in North Carolina and features Wake County’s only Children’s Hospital, Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, Level IV Neonatal Intensive Care Nursery, and Level I Trauma Center.