How to Talk to Your Child about a Disaster or Crisis
Help make the world seem less scary with these five tips
With school shootings, plane crashes and violent incidents such as the attacks in Paris and San Bernadino — all brought into our living rooms via round-the-clock media coverage — the world can seem like a frightening and unpredictable place to children.
Large-scale disasters can be particularly disturbing to little ones because they aren’t able to put the event into context as adults can, nor can they comprehend the rarity. What's more, children may see ongoing coverage of the same event and think they are separate incidents, according to the Fred Rogers Company, a nonprofit organization that helps adults strengthen relationships with children in nurturing ways.
What can we say in times of crisis to calm and reassure our children and help them develop resilience during troubling times?
Here are five tips for talking with kids
about the scary stuff in the news.
Open the conversation. It’s tempting, especially with very young children, to avoid the topic altogether, but even preschoolers will hear about events from peers or overhear adults talking about it. “Silence is not golden,” says Russell Jones, PhD, a professor of psychology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (aka Virginia Tech) and licensed clinical psychologist with a specialty in trauma. Silence suggests the event is too awful to talk about and only increases anxiety, fear and apprehension, he says. Bring up the tragedy in developmentally appropriate ways to find out what your children know.
Validate your child's thoughts and feelings. Most times children will have questions, and you’ll have an opportunity to address their concerns and correct misunderstandings. Encouraging discussion with open, thoughtful communication is reassuring to them and eases anxiety, Jones says. There’s no single right way to discuss a traumatic event. Take your cues from your child as she talks about her fears, asking her questions such as “What have you heard about?” and “Are there other things bothering you right now?” Her responses will guide you.
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Listen for safety concerns. Kids’ questions often center on concerns about their own family’s safety. For example, children may worry that someone might shoot up their own parent’s workplace. Allow anxieties to surface without minimizing them and let kids know it’s normal to feel afraid or upset, advises the Center for Parenting Education. Kids might get upset as they talk, and that’s okay. The best way for them to move through anxiety is to talk through their fears. As they do, reassure them to help them feel safe and secure.
If a child doesn’t talk about the event, it’s important to find out if she’s worried, Jones says. “Ask questions like ‘Are you worried about anything?’ ‘What did you think when you heard about that?’ and ‘How does that make you feel?’” he suggests. Then answer questions in ways your child will understand. However, if a child doesn’t want to talk about it, don’t force it.
Be patient and reassuring. Kids’ questions may circle back over and over to the same concern. Comfort them and be available for their questions as much as possible. Asking the same question over and over helps a child make sense of what happened, according to the Center for Parenting Education.
Model hope and resilience. In the immediate aftermath, the best thing parents can do is to provide a sense of steady calm and active coping skills, Jones says. Children are influenced by their parents’ reactions. It’s okay to admit your own fear, but try to be positive and model resilience by telling kids that yes, this is a tough time but we’re going to be okay. It’s good for families to gather together, but do not collect in the front of the television, Jones says.
Most kids will move through a traumatic event with appropriate family support, but if anxious thoughts or behaviors continue for more than three or four weeks, children may need some professional help. Signs of traumatic stress include nightmares, difficulty sleeping, clinginess, regressive bed-wetting, moodiness or jumpiness. And Jones says children with a predisposition toward anxiety or fear or those who have experienced previous trauma may do worse in the aftermath of an event.