Talking to Children About Tragic Events

As a parent, how should I deal with my children when mass shootings, natural disasters, and other tragic events involving loss of life occur? Should I do my best to shield them from this information – an almost impossible task in the face of today's constant news media cycle? Or should I try to talk to them about it?

This is an excellent and extremely important question in view of the frequency of these kinds of events. As you’ve correctly pointed out, the relentlessness of present-day media coverage only exacerbates the problem. We’d advise you to exercise great care and discernment in terms of your kids’ exposure to the media, especially if they’re very young.

Television is what analysts describe as a “hot” medium. It creates an impression of directness and immediacy, as if the events on screen are happening “right there” in front of the viewer. This can be disturbing to little children. We would recommend that you shield your kids from this kind of reporting as much as possible. They need to be assured of the remoteness and comparative rarity of disastrous occurrences. You can strengthen their feelings of security by letting them know that these things are happening far away, that they are unlikely to have a direct impact on your family, and that, in any event, you are there to protect them and God is watching over all of you.

Instead of turning on the TV, sit down with your kids and talk about what has happened. It’s possible that they’ve already heard something about it from their teachers or friends at school, especially if it’s an event of national or worldwide significance. If so, find out what they know. Make it clear to them that you, too, are up-to-date on the situation – this will re-affirm their confidence in you and undergird their sense of safety and well-being. Have a discussion with them about the meaning of the tragedy. Say, “How do you think the people in this situation are feeling ? How would you feel if you were in their place? What are some things that would make you feel safer right now?” Use this as an opportunity to help your children develop empathy and compassion for people they haven’t met and will probably never know. If it seems appropriate – for instance, if you’re talking about natural disasters like earthquakes, fires, or floods – develop a household plan for responding to emergencies. Write it up and post it on the refrigerator door. This will serve to dispel any unnecessary anxieties.

You can also neutralize fear and keep your kids from dreaming up worst-case scenarios by arming them with the facts. Try to bring a rational, left-brain perspective into all the chaos and panic. Say something like, “Yes, there has been a shooting. A lot of people came out safe, but some died. The authorities have been notified and the culprit has been arrested, etc.” There’s no need to go into graphic details. At this stage of the game it’s important to take the respective ages and temperaments of your children into account. It’s likely that some of them are pretty well equipped to handle news of this nature, while others are naturally of a more anxious bent. You’ll have to be patient and take “baby steps” with the second group. Give them plenty of time to process their emotions. Help them understand that the world is not necessarily a safe place and that bad things do happen from time to time. Reassure them with the thought that God is always with us, that He has promised to stand by us, and that He will take care of us no matter what comes our way.

If you think it might be beneficial, we invite you to call us. Our Counseling staff would be pleased to discuss your concerns with you in a free, over-the-phone consultation.


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