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How to Talk to Your Kids About Tragedy

When tragedy struck at Sandy Hook, my kids were little – one was a toddler and the other two were still in preschool. I didn’t want them to learn about  the events at school, so I texted their teacher to say I wanted them to hear it from me, if they were going to hear about it at all. Thankfully, the teacher said they weren’t going to discuss it. I agreed, they were too young and didn’t need to know about the senseless acts of violence to children, because there was no way they would understand – none of us did.

Imagine my surprise as we were driving down the street and my oldest asked “Mommy, why are the flags at half-mast?” I hadn’t thought about how I would discuss it. I had already decided we weren’t going to tell the kids, and I certainly wasn’t going to talk about it with his younger brothers in the car.

So I lied, “I don’t know.” Not my shining moment as a parent, but at that point, it was the least damaging answer I could offer.

Just days after the worst mass shooting in US history at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the flags are again at half-mast. This time I am a little more prepared to answer, “Mommy, why are the flags at half-mast. I certainly don’t have it all figured out, but here are some tips that might help you navigate these discussions with your own children.

For young children:

  • Don’t have the news on when your children are around. Following tragedies, the media often plays and replays graphic video.  The morning news on the radio or on TV is often filled with violent stories of tragedies, violence and suffering.  Kids pick up more than we think, so it is a good idea to leave the news off around little ears.
  • If your child brings up an event, ask what they heard. This gives you a chance to get their frame of reference, find out what they know, and correct misinformation.
  • Answer their questions. Children might be hearing things about events; some true, some not. Provide accurate information, but keep it simple and don’t elaborate on the disturbing details.
  • Tell the truth (I know, I failed at this the first time around) and provide reassurance. It is normal for children to feel scared or unsure during these times.  Reassure them that you and the community are working hard to keep them safe.

For older children:

  • Older children and teens are more likely to have constant access to the news with social media and smart phones. They will likely want to know more details and have more questions.
  • It is okay to say you don’t know something if you don’t. Often new stories are still developing and all the details are not known. Instead of extrapolating or theorizing, stick to what is known.

It breaks my heart that we have to keep having these conversations, but I have to believe that reassuring our kids and pointing out examples of love and kindness around them will overshadow the hate and violence.

You can find additional tips for talking to your children about tragedies, here.

Sarah A. Denny, MD
Sarah Denny, MD, FAAP, works as an attending physician in the Section of Emergency Medicine at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and as an Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University School of Medicine. She is Co-Chair of the Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention for the Ohio Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and serves on the Executive Committee for the Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Her specific areas of interest include bike helmet awareness, safe sleep and legislative advocacy. Sarah is the mom of three energetic little boys (ages 4, 6 and 8). In her free time, Dr. Denny runs half marathons, loves to travel and is learning to garden.

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