Children have a natural desire to learn about the world around them and understand their place in it. Taking in new information, forming connections, and making sense of what they’ve learned is an essential part of how kids grow and mature over time.
So when violence and tragedy happen, it’s hard for parents to protect children from that knowledge before they have a chance to discuss it with them. If children don’t learn about it at home, they might hear it from other kids at daycare or school, on social media, or from seeing the news on TV. When significant events happen, it’s important that children are appropriately informed by someone they trust for the sake of their safety and well-being.
But with the nonstop nature of social media and 24-hour news coverage, how can you keep your child from being overly exposed and affected by tragedy happening around the world? And what’s the best way to approach talking to them about it?
As a pediatrician, each time I get questions like these from parents, it saddens me that there’s a need to even ask. But at the same time, I’m glad they’re thinking about it. Whether it’s news of a hurricane or a school shooting, there are five key things I believe we need to do to help our kids cope in a healthy way and avoid emotional trauma.
1. Provide the limited facts (to kids ages 4+)
While you can (and should) shield children under age 4 from disturbing news, kids will likely hear others comment on it when they start preschool or elementary school. By getting the news from you first, your child will be less anxious when hearing friends talk about it. By ignoring and not talking about tragedy with them, children may think the subject is taboo. They may also try to hide their fears and believe exaggerated versions of what they hear. It’s up to you to ensure your child has the right perspective and understanding of events.
The way to help them is to give your child simple, accurate information that isn’t too vague. Be careful to not over explain, which can become overwhelming or confusing. Know that your child will likely interpret the situation differently than you. So ask them an open-ended question like, “What do you know about that?” By doing this, you can gauge what your child has heard. It will help you determine how they view the situation, and find out what questions and concerns they have. Your child will take emotional cues from you, so try to stay calm and reassuring.
2. Explain that your child is safe
The most important thing in these conversations is to reassure your child that they are safe, and to continue to provide a consistent and supportive environment. Getting back to your family’s normal routine sends the strongest message to kids that things are okay. It often takes some time for a child to process a tragic event. Tell your child that you love them often. And remind them that they can talk to you at any time about their thoughts, worries or questions. A hug or snuggle can also help to calm their fears.
For older kids, this might mean explaining that the tragic event happened far away, and telling them what the police, firefighters, airport security guards and others are doing to keep people safe. Beloved children’s show host Mr. Roger’s has some important guidance that has provided comfort and reassurance during stressful times: “Look for the helpers.”
Go over the safety precautions in your own home, such as smoke alarms and deadbolts. It may also be helpful to assemble an emergency kit together. Emergency kits can contain things like a flashlight, first aid kit, blanket and water bottles. Besides making them feel prepared for an emergency, physically making the kits can help kids feel like they have a certain amount of control in how they keep themselves and their family safe.
Reassuring your child that they’re safe can be especially difficult when the incident involves a school shooting. Unlike a weather-related tragedy such as a tornado, it may feel like there’s no way you can explain why this unthinkable act has happened, or confidently promise them it could never happen at their school.
What you can do right away is give them only the limited, necessary information and offer them your love, hugs and support as you process the news together. If they’d like to talk, encourage them to share how they’re feeling. If they need time and space to process for a bit, allow them that.
It’s a good idea to reach out to a trusted resource for professional expertise on how to approach that specific incident with your child. You can contact your pediatrician, a school counselor or a children’s mental health specialist. They can often help you with actionable advice to help provide support, comfort and peace to your child.
3. Turn off the TV
According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, 65% of children live in homes where the television is on half the time. In 36% of homes, it’s on all the time. Social media and the internet are also part of daily life for many young kids. That means exposure to news events can happen through online pop-ups and sidebar ads – even if they’re just playing a game. Don’t leave young children unsupervised with the TV or another media device. Be aware of what’s playing or showing, and if violent news comes on, be prepared to discuss that news with your child. It’s also a good idea to change the channel or switch websites when you have concerns about violent or disturbing images on the screen.
Loud noises, big flashes and angry sounding or looking people will scare young children, who often mix up fact with fantasy. They often don’t know what “far away” means. And if they see replays of the same scary event happening over and over, they might think new events keep happening.
Get into the habit of regularly following news with children over age 4, so that they can learn about the world and their place in it. This will help them understand that there is good news in the world, not only tragedy. However, with school-age children it’s still important to limit violent images, not only with the news, but all screen time for kids. When you can, try opting for newspaper and radio news over TV or social media.
4. Talk openly about feelings and opinions
Share your feelings about the tragedy with your child, and ask them to share their feelings with you. Encouraging open communication at an early age helps children recognize and process their own emotions as they happen, rather than suppressing them, and it will make it easier for them to come to you when they want to talk about something in the future.
Young children can often share thoughts and feelings more easily through play. You can provide crayons, markers, play dough, blocks, dolls, stuffed animals or other toys for your child to act out or show their reactions to the current news. Watch your child playing, and then discuss the content with them.
Be sure to listen to your child and comfort them. Acknowledge their feelings and let them know that it’s okay to feel sad, upset or stressed. Make sure they know they are not to blame when bad things happen. Some children may cope with a trauma or disaster better by helping others. You can encourage your child to make caring cards or write letters to those who have been hurt or lost their homes. Or you can send thank-you notes to police, rescuers or other people who helped.
5. Keep an eye on behavior
Tragedy and the fear that comes with it affects children in different ways. Keep an eye out for changes to your child’s behavior patterns, such as:
- Changes in eating or toileting
- Trouble falling asleep or nightmares
- Increased interest in war-related play
- More trouble with separation
- Complaints of stomachaches, daily headaches or fatigue
- Rowdiness, sobbing, angry outbursts or tantrums
- Acting younger than their age, like sucking on their thumb or asking you to feed or dress them
- Loss of interest in schoolwork or withdrawing from friends and family
If you haven’t talked with your child about violence or tragedy that’s being covered in the news, these changes could be a sign that they have been exposed to it elsewhere. If you have talked about the incident, keep reassuring your child that they are safe, and continue to encourage your child to talk about their feelings and opinions with you. Aim to spend family meals together at the table without the TV on and try to have one-on-one time with your child (or children). These moments of connection can create the time and space kids need to share how they’re feeling.
The good news is that children are usually quite resilient. While your child will likely not feel completely reassured overnight, that’s normal. However, if his or her changed behavior continues for more than 2-4 weeks, it may be time to seek professional help.
What to do if you think your child may need professional help
Start by bringing your child to the pediatrician or medical professional your family sees for well-child visits. Someone who already knows your child and their health history is often well-equipped to understand how anxiety affects them, and ways to help calm their fears. That clinician can also help you determine if seeing a children’s mental health professional would be beneficial, and they can help connect you with someone.
During the school year, it’s also important to reach out to your child’s teacher or someone at school who sees them on a regular basis. School staff may have additional thoughts on how your child’s behavior has been affected and be able to provide resources such as school counselors.