Talking with Children about Tragic Incidents

It’s impossible to hear news of murder, terrorism or natural disasters without wondering how it would feel if it were to happen to us. Such tragedies often involve multiple deaths, and shatter the view that our own environment is totally safe. Such tragedies affect the family, friends and communities of those involved and shake to the core the natural support network which we all rely on in times of crisis. Shock, disbelief and a sense of powerlessness occur as people attempt to comprehend such events. Communities need the care of external agencies to support them through a crisis and the long-term effects of loss.

While a particular area will be most impacted by tragic events, media coverage sends shockwaves out to a far wider community. When children are involved, questions arise such as: “How are we going to explain this to ourchildren?” “What should we tell them?” and “How can we help our children feel safe?”

Our recommendations are based on the experience of practitioners working with bereaved children in the aftermath of tragic events.

  • Children look to their familiar adults for support.Parents and carers know their children best. It is difficult to avoid tragic news. Be there for the child, listen to what they are saying, watch their behaviour (such as withdrawal, aggression, or a refusal to participate in their usual activities). Let them talk if they want, reassure them that what has happened is out of the ordinary. Be prompted by their questions.
  • Limit their access to recurring news and exposure.You can’t protect a child from hearing about tragic events. However, over-exposure to graphic images and emotional news can be overwhelming and cause fear, insecurity and high anxiety. Children may find it difficult to get graphic images out of their minds. It is easy for all of us to get consumed by such tragedies on the media. It is good to model, standing back from the stories before you feel emotionally flooded.
  • You can’t shield children completely from what has happened.However, it is important not to overload a child with information. Explain what is happening in an age-appropriate way. Younger children require small pieces of information at a time. Be prompted by their questions. Let them know you are willing to talk about the event with them. Reassure them that if they are worried about what has happened they can talk to you. Don’t force such conversations but allow one-to-one time for them to occur with each child.
  •  Remember children respond in different ways.Responses can cross a range; from apparent disinterest to nightmares, eating issues, and anxiety. Such responses depend on age, previous experience of death and loss, and personality. Fearful children tend to worry, quiet children may bottle their feelings, and those who want to appear unfazed may display bravado or a lack of caring. Children who are directly affected by such events (such as those who lost a family member or a friend or a significant adult in their lives) will tend to have longer-term reactions and need longer-term support.
  • Many children will have an increased sense of fear for their own safety.Reassure them such events are rare, and you are doing everything you can to make them feel safe and secure. Answer questions, but if you don’t have an answer don’t bluff. Tell them you will come back to them with the information they want. Let them know that sometimes even adults do not know why these events occur. If you wonder what the child knows, ask them what they think of an event and what do they know about it. Sometimes this can be addressed by the question: “What do youthink happened?” This is suitable for older children. Remember children are curious and often at times of tragedy they eavesdrop on adult conversations. They take their cues from the adults around them, and soak up the atmosphere.
  • Children want, need and deserve the truth. Hold the truth for the child, be honest. Lying about an event may cause them to lose trust. Open and honest conversations create trust, and enables a child to ask further questions.