How to Talk to Kids about Tragedy: Advice from an RN

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Daily we have all seen images of hurt, pain, and fear. Where do we go from here with our children?

The last few weeks have been difficult. Our nation has experienced hurricanes, floods, a mass shooting. Daily we have all seen images of hurt, pain, and fear. Where do we go from here with our children? When a child is younger than 5 years old they are still trying to figure out their world.  They may think these terrible events happen over and over again day after day because of the news coverage that is playing in their background.

Children ages 3 and under absorb the pain and fear from around them. They may not understand why, but they feel their parent’s fear.  They feel the increase in tension, they feel the lack of joy and laughter, they feel the change in routine as we are glued to the news. Young children simply need to know that they are safe. They feel this safety and comfort in routine and favorite rituals. This is their security. They should not have exposure to the media and adult conversations about the tragedies or disasters that may surround them. They need time with Mom and Dad and other adults who love them. Children will feel a parent’s fear, so we must try to keep our youngest children cocooned in love and routine.

Preschool aged children from ages 4 to 6 know much more than what most parents think. They hear conversations, watch the TV when it is on, and feel the fear or tension in a home.  Magical thinking is very common at this age, so children will “fill in the blanks” with their thoughts. They often think they may be the cause of some of the tragedy.  Their “time out” yesterday may in their mind have caused the storm.  At this age, children are not able to comprehend time, or the idea of “forever” in death.  Preschoolers exposed to these tragedies may develop new fears, have nightmares, and might wonder if the tragedies they see or hear about will happen to them. Often preschoolers will ask questions. Simple answers will alleviate their curiosity without elevating their anxiety.  Most of all they need to know that you will keep them safe. 

Preschoolers will also often try to make sense of an event through play. You might see a child who experienced a hurricane actually “play hurricane” to work through the experience. You may see a child draw pictures showing what they felt, feared or experienced. This type of play gives a child a way to work through their thoughts, fears and anxieties. Sometimes the play might be disturbing to parents, such as a child playing that children are running from gunfire, but it is best for a parent not to stop the play unless a child is playing in a way that could result in injury. Later, a parent can then talk about the play with the child and again explain how they will keep them safe.

School age children often are working on rule following, what is good and bad, right and wrong. Because of this normal growth and development, when they see natural disasters or tragedies they often want to do something to help. Parents can assist school agers in finding a way to give assistance through local charities. Often, children who are a part of responding to the needs of the victims feel less anxiety. Children who have families with religious roots can also rely on prayer to help a child work those feelings. Concentrating on the “heroes” of the moment, those first responders, charities, and wonderful stories of selflessness that always surface during a tragedy are good conversation topics for parents of school aged children. Having open conversations about what they know about an event and how they are feeling is important. 

Teenagers are extremely aware of events around them. They tend to harbor intense feelings during this stage of growth and development that can become even more intense when they see disasters or tragedies. They worry about their future and how events may influence their future goals and life. Teens need open conversations with trusted adults who speak the truth.  What can they do?  How can they help? What can we do as a family or society to change this? Motivating teens to act is the best way for them to work through their intense emotional responses. Many teens will jump right back into friends and activities to escape feelings. Respect how your teen handles their emotions.

The bottom line: children need to be children. So, protect them from exposure to topics they can’t process and instead concentrate on your family’s small joys and blessings. 

-- By Cindy Love, RN
   IU Health

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