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Perspectives on Grieving

Talking with Children about Tragic Events

Here are some things to keep in mind as you talk with your children following tragic events. We cannot avoid the tension in the air and the fact that many of our children will probably know about an event before we figure out what to say to them, thanks to 24/7 news and social media.  So while we gather our own thoughts and process our own emotions, we must also figure out what to say to children and teens, and how to be supportive of them.

Here are some suggestions to follow as you discuss these events with youth:

  • Limit exposure to the media as much as possible, especially for the youngest of children. After 9/11, there were numerous stories about children believing that thousands of buildings were falling down. The reality was that they saw the same building falling down many times but did not understand that.
  • Before talking with your children try to find time to process your own thoughts and feelings so as to not use your children to process your own feelings. Processing and getting support for your own feelings is best done with a partner, peers, or a professional support person.  
  • During traumatic and emotional times, it is important to practice good self-care. This allows you to be a role model for your children in how to cope during difficult times and allows you to be your best self when supporting your kids. Good self-care looks like getting plenty of rest, eating and drinking healthy, getting out in nature, exercise, journaling. We’d love to hear your ideas on how you practice good self-care!
  • Talk to your children about the events of this past weekend in a safe, comfortable setting, like your own home. Tell them what you know, but don’t give explicit details unless they are asking for them. If they do ask, ask them what they know already so you can confirm or clarify any misunderstandings.  
  • Acknowledge your own feelings, as well as the feelings of your children. Saying things like, “I feel sad. How do you feel?” normalizes to them that it’s OK to have all sorts of feelings. Also, do not assume they are having the same feelings as you. Acknowledging your feelings and checking with you child on their feelings can lead to a discussion about healthy ways to cope with difficult feelings and opportunities to take good care of ourselves when we are stressed/anxious/angry. Keep in mind when you share your feelings to do so in a calm and controlled manner. Again, process ahead of time with a peer, so you can be calm and present with your child(ren.)
  • Check in the next morning: how did your family sleep, were there any dreams, disturbing thoughts, etc.
  • Explore Self-Care Strategies with your children: Let children and teens know that there are ways to feel better as we cope with uncomfortable feelings. Help them identify what provides relief and support. Encourage them to use those strategies, especially talking to others about their feelings. Read/tell a favorite story before bed, offer a favorite food or drink, play favorite or relaxing music, practice some deep breathing, give/get a hug, talk, and depending on your beliefs, pray or meditate.
  • Check in the next morning: how did your family sleep, were there any dreams, disturbing thoughts, etc.
  • Remind children that trustworthy and helpful people are in charge: It is important for children and adults to be reminded how many helpful people there are in the world, especially during a crisis. Assure them that you and the community (the schools, the police, etc.) are doing everything possible to keep them safe. As Mr. Rogers said, "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ’Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers- so many caring people in the world."
  • Seek professional help if needed. Despite the fact that these occurrences are becoming all too familiar, we are not always equipped to have these conversations and provide the right support to our children. Reach out to a professional for advice or support for yourself.

Please call Imagine, A Center for Coping with Loss, if you or your children need additional support at 908-264-3100 or info@imaginenj.org.

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