How to Talk to Children about National Tragedies

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When widespread tragedies and terrorists attacks top newspaper headlines and fill television airwaves, so many questions arise. While adults ponder the how and why of the violence and tragedy of events like the Paris shooting at Charlie Hebdo, children also have questions, concerns and even fears.

A first reaction for parents and teachers may be to shield children from the news of violence, but children look to the adults in their lives to teach them to cope and process the emotions of such events.

“Children are often searching for a sense of safety and security when they hear about these tragedies,” says Dr. Eric Scott, pediatric psychiatrist at Riley at IU Health. “Parents and teachers can help children cope with these events by discussing what took place and talking through the child’s emotions. While difficult, these situations can provide a learning experience.”

How can parents and teachers instill a sense of safety in light of terror? Children need age-appropriate responses—from toddlers to young adults—to questions based on their development level.

“Children will seek answers from many sources, so it’s helpful when you are the one to tell your children the truth with the facts, avoiding highly emotional delivery,” says Dr. Scott. “Children rely on their parents to provide a sense of security, so it’s important to show them a calm and reasoned response when sharing your own anxiety and nervousness.”

When you’re in a calm state, you can answer questions and instill the necessary sense of security and safety in a way that resonates with your child’s developmental stage, according to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). Here are the NASP’s suggested, age-appropriate approaches to conversations with children to help them cope with national tragedies:

  • Early elementary school. Children of this age need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that the daily structures of their lives will not change.
  • Upper elementary and early middle school. Children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy.
  • Upper middle school and high school. Students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence and threats to safety in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. They will be more committed to doing something to help the victims and affected community.

The key is to allow children of all ages to voice their concerns and to know they’re being heard. If you’d like to learn more tools for talking to your children, read more Riley Connections mental health articles.

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