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How to Talk to Your Kids About Tragic Events

How to Talk to Your Kids About Tragic Events

Start by being honest and listening to their fears, says Dr. Mehmet Oz.

In recent years, people all over the world have been assailed by images of tragedy, and the latest American mass shooting brings catastrophe to the forefront of the news yet again. Thanks to hyper-responsive TV coverage and the omnipresence of social media, graphic photos and video taken at these kinds of scenes can be viewed by millions in a matter of seconds. It's a lot to take, for anyone.

But for kids, who might not fully understand what's happening, or who could feel they're in danger themselves, it can be especially challenging. They may be confused or angry. They may be concerned. And they may be really, really scared.

"I know, as a parent myself, that our natural instinct is to want to protect our kids," says Mehmet Oz, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon and host of The Dr. Oz Show. "And that includes protecting them from finding out about horrible events in the news. But it's best that they find out about these things from you and not at school or online."

How you speak to children after a tragedy depends on a few things: their age, your relationship and of course, the incident itself. With that in mind, here are a few strategies for answering kids' questions, helping them understand, and hopefully, calming their fears.

How to talk to young children
In the aftermath of a tragedy, though they may not comprehend the details, even the littlest kids are often aware something bad has happened—and many fear the same could happen to them. So, in a calm voice, explain the event simply, in a way they understand. Be honest, but don't offer unnecessary or violent details. Let them ask questions, and answer as best and as clearly as you can.

Limit exposure to TV or social media; if you must watch, do it when they're already in bed. "Repeated exposure to the same event can worsen the stress—especially for children," says Dr. Oz. "When talking about the tragedy to other adults be cognizant of kids who may be listening."

Most importantly, let children know that they're safe—and their family and friends are, too. Acknowledge their feelings of sadness or fear, and comfort them with hugs and affection. Let them know you love them.

How to talk to older kids and tweens
Once kids are in elementary or junior high school, they're more keyed into world and national events. At the same time, they're prone to misinformation, thanks to friends and social media. When a shooting or natural disaster happens, do your best to give accurate—though again, not gory—details. Encourage questions, and answer them simply, straightforwardly and with facts on your side. If there are questions about the news, the American Association of Pediatrics suggests recording it in advance and watching it together, taking care to pause and discuss.

As with young children, you should assure older kids they're safe, and let them express their feelings. "Don't tell your children it's silly to be afraid," says Dr. Oz. "You can validate their fears but still stress that the chances of something like this happening to them are rare." 

Older children want to help the victims, as well, in which case you can work together to take action. Remember: in the wake of tragedy, it's best to give to established philanthropic organizations or verified funds; the organizers often have experience, and can direct aid accordingly.

How to talk to teens
With more sophisticated worldviews and a better understanding of news, teenagers may not need as much comforting and as many explanations as littler kids. Then again, they might. Tell them the truth. Let them ask questions, and ask them questions in return—about what they think, how their friends are feeling, and whether they want to help. Provide detailed information, and be prepared for passionate opinions. Look out for signs of depression or an inability to cope, especially in teens who tend toward mental illness, as these events can evoke strong feelings.

What to avoid
Media can be vital in helping us fully comprehend tragedy, but unending footage of death and destruction can also wear us down, upset and scare us, whatever our age. When children are in the house—particularly young children—limit your consumption. It'll help everyone keep a better head.

Finally, while the discussion may be difficult or uncomfortable, don't skip talking about tragedy with your kids. A fact-based discussion rooted in comfort and concern goes a long way to addressing kids' fears—and it's best that it's coming from someone who loves them.

This article was medically reviewed on May 23, 2017 and updated on August 5, 2019.

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