Do I Talk to my Child About Tragedy?

discussing tragedy with children

Do I Talk to my Child About Tragedy?

Haim Ginott said, “Children are like wet cement whatever falls on them makes an impression.” So, if you are pondering, do I talk to my child about tragedy, the answer is an astounding YES. Yes, talk to them. A tragedy is not something that should be hidden from children. They are going to learn about it through the media or overhear someone, including their own family members, talking about it. They need to hear this news from the people that love them, the ones that care for them and keep them safe, who they trust.

Before you begin conversing with your child, be aware of their age. Know what they will comprehend in your talk. Talk to them on a level they can understand. Simple is best. Stick to the facts. Don’t pollute the conversation with conjecture, opinion, or bias on why it happened. Have you talked to your child about death? Do they understand what it means? Children are exposed to death on some level early on. We, as parents, just don’t recognize it because we equate death to people.

My granddaughter cried for two days over the death of a butterfly. That was her first experience with death. We held a funeral in the yard. We talked about the butterfly and imagined what it had done in its life.  We discussed what might have caused its death. By the time the grieving stopped, she had a very good idea of what death was. Two years later when she experienced her first death in the family, she knew what death meant. She knew the person was never coming back and, in her mind, the family member was now in heaven with her butterfly. As a Christian, heaven is the best hope for death and that’s what we teach our children.

When a tragedy occurs, take a moment to think about what you want to say, however, before you begin talking, ask the child what they already know. Maybe they haven’t seen or heard anything yet. That will be your clue to where to start. Ask them open-ended questions to guide your talk. That will help you to answer any questions they may have. It’s perfectly ok to get emotional during your talk. These types of talks teach your child empathy, sympathy, compassion, social awareness, and communication. These are teachable moments that will stay with your child.

An important topic that you will need to cover in your talk is the reassurance of your child’s safety. Children need to feel safe and secure. Discuss with them the people in their lives there to protect them including policemen, firemen, family members, teachers, coaches, and etc. Go over your child’s school policy for disaster procedures including armed shooter on premises policies. Make sure they understand how the school communicates with the parents in an emergency. Let them know the teachers and staff at school/childcare are there to take every measure to keep them safe from harm. For older children, make a family plan. What will your family do in the event of a tragedy? This will be great reassurance for the child.

Tragedies come in many shapes, sizes, and forms… there is not one simple template that you can use to explain a tragedy to your child. Many things, including your child’s age, are a factor in the conversation. Beyond talking to the child, you will need to watch for signs of how they are coping with the tragedy. Below are 11 tips for helping children who have dealt with a tragedy. Your child’s well-being is always the top priority.

Author: Belinda Davis ©2018

11 Tips for Helping Children Who Have Experienced a Disaster as published by NAEYC and written by Laura J. Colker

  1. Provide loving, nurturing comfort and care. Offer extra hugs and closeness.
  2. Answer children’s questions directly, honestly, and age appropriately. Explain disaster-related language in terms children will understand. Don’t offer more information than children are interested in, and don’t force children to talk. Be prepared to answer the same questions over and over.
  3. Review with children their daily schedule—wake up, go to school, play and learn at school, pickup, dinner, and bedtime. Routines make children feel secure.
  4. Remind children that their parents will be there at the end of the day. Establish or strengthen rituals to reinforce this: “When you finish the afternoon meeting, it will be time to take the bus home.”
  5. Encourage children to express their emotions—even anger. Help children understand their feelings and find healthy outlets for them. Provide lots of art materials, sand and water play, dance, and dramatic play where children can safely express sadness or anger.
  6. Come up with projects where children help others affected by a traumatic event, such as making get well cards for people in the hospital. Helping activities build compassion and give children a sense of control.
  7. Reassure children that they’re safe and point out all the ways that parents and teachers make them safe. Post, review, and practice evacuation plans with the children.
  8. Offer stress-reducing activities such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness exercises.
  9. Create cozy spaces where children can be alone, be sad, be angry, or think about things. Add beanbag chairs, pillows, and stuffed animals for comfort.
  10. Read aloud books about disasters, such as Freddy the Frogcaster and the Huge Hurricane, by Janice Dean, to encourage discussion. Offer appropriate comments: “The frog in the story is very helpful. There were lots of kind people who helped us after the hurricane.”
  11. Point out good things that have happened, such as people helping each other and the community banding together.