Communication With Kids: How to Address Tragic Events


When traumatic events occur in our world or our town, our inclination might be to limit communication with kids and keep them naive and protected from the tragedies and violence that occurs around them. However, it is often difficult to prevent these stories from reaching our children’s ears. Our main task as mothers is to instill a sense of safety and security.

two young girls hugging

How Good Communication With Kids Helps Them Deal With Tragic Events

Understanding how to best communicate, reassure, and satisfy any questions our children may have when disaster strikes is key in helping them deal with tragedy. Follow these eight steps to address tragic events with your children:

1. Remain Steady

Our children look to us as an emotional barometer. We must remain cognizant of our own emotional reactions and careful to monitor what we watch on the television and our adult conversations even when we think our children are not paying attention.

2. Share Appropriately

Information about tragic events should be shared as truthfully as possible, but in a developmentally appropriate manner. The younger the child, the more detail should be edited into the most basic and simplest response.

3. Listen

If your child has any questions, actively listen with complete attention and sincerity. The best thing an adult can do is listen, then listen some more.

4. Validate

Validate your child’s feelings. Statements such as “I can see how sad this makes you” or “That can feel very scary, can’t it?” are examples of good validating statements.

5. Encourage Without Pushing

If a child does not raise questions, encourage dialogue but avoid pushing or overemphasizing the issue. For some children, a one-sentence explanation will suffice while others might require more conversation and reassurance. However, don’t assume that a child who isn’t broaching the topic is unaware or unaffected.

6. Use Various Forms Expression

Very young children, or those less inclined to express themselves verbally, may find it easier to express themselves through art, stories, or play.

7. Discuss Emergency Plans

Children feel safe and secure when they know what to do and what to expect. Take this opportunity to discuss both your family’s and your school’s plans for safety in the event of various emergencies. Though it may seem counterintuitive, children actually feel less anxious when they have a sense of control and preparedness, which makes the “what ifs” feel less threatening.

8. Keep Your Routine

Stick to your family’s regular schedule. Having routine during a time of emotional chaos provides children with a sense of safety and predictability.

Some children might experience vicarious trauma from horrific national events, even if the event occurs far from home. Signs of distress in a child or adolescent include exhibiting behaviors previously outgrown (like thumb sucking or bed wetting), nightmares or sleep disturbances, changes in mood, decreased appetite or concentration, social withdrawal and/or physical complaints such as headaches or stomach aches. While these types of reactions are not uncommon, if your child develops symptoms of distress that persist or worsen with time, it is important to seek appropriate assistance from a mental health professional.

How do you explain traumatic events to your children? What has been helpful for you in your conversations?

Alicia DiFabio Alicia DiFabio, Psy. D. is a doctorate of psychology, freelance writer, and mother to four girls. She lives in New Jersey with her family and writes about motherhood at her personal blog, Lost In Holland.

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