Emotional Health

Your Child and Tragedy

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7 Ways to Help Your Child Understand Tragedy

News coverage and public conversation can be unavoidable in the aftermath of tragedy, and parents face the additional challenge of managing their child’s understanding of the situation.

Parents should talk to their children about tragedies, no matter their age. More likely than not, even your littlest one has absorbed some sense of the matter from seeing the news, overhearing adult conversations or perceiving your own reaction to the situation. The key, then, is filtering and presenting information in a way that’s appropriate for your child and that they can understand, accommodate and cope with.

Here are 7 ways to help your child understand tragedy:

1. Ask What They’ve Heard

Start by asking your child what they know about the situation. This can be phrased in an open-ended way, such as, “What do you know about…” finishing the sentence with whatever shorthand the events have been assigned – for example, the city name or the name of the victim. Gently clarify any information they may have wrong or provide greater context where appropriate, and ask what questions they have.

2. Answer Questions, Avoid Detail

Encouraging questions is essential, both during your initial conversation as well as during the aftermath and ongoing coverage of the tragedy. However, in answering your child’s questions, you should use detail with discretion. It’s important for them to know what happened, but most times, they do not need to know explicit specifics.

3. Share Information, Not Graphics

Similarly, try to explain the information to your child using words, rather than exposing them to graphic images. This may involve asking your child to avoid television and social media, or pre-screening news segments that you may want to show your child. For older children, it can be harder to screen what they see, so you should talk to them in advance about what they are seeing, and what it means in the context of the event.

4. Base Your Talk on Development, Not Age

While age is an important factor in determining how to approach tragedy with your child, your discussions should be guided more by maturity and life experiences. While this most directly relates to children with developmental delay or disability, it can also include those who have experienced or dealt with tragedy before.

5. Maintain a Regular Schedule

In the aftermath of a tragedy, do your best to keep your child on the same schedule. While you may be concerned or worried about sending them back to school, returning to your everyday routine can communicate an important message about courage and resilience.

6. Pay Extra Attention

Your child’s return to a routine will necessarily mean they are out of your sight, but when they are with you, however, pay particular attention to their well-being to ensure they’re coping with what’s occurred. Trouble sleeping, changes in appetite, difficulty concentrating at school, physical complaints or changes in behavior can all be signs that your child is struggling more than they may say. You may want to dedicate extra time to reading, playing or spending time together – encouraging them to ask questions or talk about their feelings at any time.

7. Role Model Response

The most effective way to help your child understand is to model a healthy response. Whether that’s verbalizing your feelings, maintaining a calm attitude or getting involved in relief or activist efforts, your child will pick up cues on how to respond to tragedy from you.

Everyone responds to tragedies in their own way and for parents, it’s vital to think about how best to teach and guide your child through trying times, giving them the tools to face tragedy when it strikes.

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