Talking to Young Children about Terrible Things

foodforthoughtIn the wake of the shooting in Connecticut today, parents and teachers may be seeking some guidance on talking to kids about tragic events. I’m not a child psychologist or grief counselor, but I do have experience helping young children cope with tragedies (illness of teachers, deaths in the family, etc.), and guiding families through addressing these issues with their children.

The first question that often comes up is, do I need to tell them anything? With something like a school shooting at a school very far away, the answer may be no. Why even bring up the topic, right?

But if they’re hearing about it anyway—from the TV or the radio, or from overhearing adults talking, or from other children who have been told about it—you’re going to want to address it. And if you’re feeling affected, it’s good to let kids know what’s going on with you—when you’re upset, it’s much scarier for children to see it but not know why. Finally, even when bad things happen in the world, there are positive learning experiences to be had from it. There’s a quote going around Facebook today attributed to Mr. Rogers:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”

That’s a lesson children should learn, because they’ll have to face tragedy in their lives sooner or later. Better to face it when they are surrounded by attentive, trusted caregivers.

I’m not saying that you should or shouldn’t tell your children about this shooting. But if you want to, that’s okay—you’re not going to scar them forever. On the contrary, they may learn valuable things from it. Here are some tips.

When you tell children bad news, you want to keep the information simple and honest. Try to narrow it down to the absolutely essential pieces of information. Think about what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it in advance. For instance:

“I’m feeling upset today, and I want to tell you why. At a school far away, a person used a gun to shoot some children and some grown-ups. Thinking about it makes me scared and sad. I was wondering if you heard about this, and if there’s anything you want to know about it.”

You want to give children a chance to ask questions. You don’t want to frighten them, but they’ll be more frightened if they think you’re hiding information from them, so be prepared to tell the truth. Try your best not to answer more than was asked. This is very difficult, but important. Children, if given the opportunity, will ask questions they’re ready to hear the answers to; the stuff you want to say may not be the stuff they’re prepared to hear.

If a child asks, “Did any of the children die?” it’s tempting to want to dive straight into what happens when you die, or why they don’t have to be scared about dying, or why it’s connected to someone else they know who died, but those questions may or may not be what’s on their mind. Better just to say “Yes,” and be ready for the next question. They may not be interested; they may not have anything to say. That’s okay. Make sure they know they can ask later if they want to.

If you don’t know how to answer a question, it’s okay to say, “That’s a hard question. Let me think about it,” or “I don’t know. Let me find out, and I’ll tell you when I know.” And it’s okay not to know all the answers. “That’s a question I’ve never quite figured out myself. I wish I knew.”

If you feel like children are having feelings they don’t know how to express, it’s okay to probe a little bit. “You seem really thoughtful today. Are you thinking about the kids in Connecticut?” But the need to talk through feelings is a pretty adult need—often upset children just need comfort. Keep your eyes open for any kind of acting out in the coming days, and assume it’s a sign of fear or confusion. Respond with compassion and hugs, and it will pass.

It’s a good time to break out books about negative feelings—Molly Bang’s When Sophie Gets Angry, Trace Moroney’s When I’m Feeling Sad/Scared/Angry series, etc.—which help children think about the issues more broadly. It’s a good time to have lots of serious sensory play—clay, water, wrestling, etc.—which helps children use their bodies to regulate emotions. It’s a good time for snuggling and hugging and singing love songs.

It’s hard to know how any particular child will respond to news like this, or how any particular child will respond to your reactions to this kind of news. But if you keep it straightforward and clear and honest, you’ll find your way through it together.

3 thoughts on “Talking to Young Children about Terrible Things

  1. Elizabeth McD December 15, 2012 at 1:03 am Reply

    My coworker also shared something from Mr. Rogers today that has helped me as a teacher cope with this. It’s a PSA he recorded after 9/11, speaking to adults.

  2. gregm91436 December 15, 2012 at 1:04 am Reply

    Thanks, Jarrod. I teach in elementary schools, so this is a handy reference. I’m devoutly hoping that the topic doesn’t come up.

  3. Sarah S. December 15, 2012 at 2:56 am Reply

    Thanks, Jarrod. I am teaching second and third grade. All of these reflections are very helpful.

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