Talking to Children About Tragedy

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We are living in unprecedented times with the rise of COVID-19. This novel virus has infiltrated and upended various aspects of our lives. This upheaval has sparked fear and questions from all over the world. One of these frequently asked questions is: how do I talk to my children about tragedy? Sports, recitals, and playdates are canceled; schools are now going virtual. How do you explain what is happening in the world without inciting fear?

According to research conducted by Kansas State University, children in times of tragedy may internalize the news. This internalization can lead to developing fears and anxieties that may manifest themselves in either outward behavior or internal struggles. In response to a tragedy, children can have nightmares, difficulty sleeping, problems with daydreaming, or an inability to stop replaying the disaster in their head. There can also be physiological symptoms in response to tragedy. Children can suffer from indigestion, headaches, fatigue, or stomachaches in the wake of tragedy. Furthermore, an inability to focus on tasks, which in turn leads to poor performance in school, has been seen. The question becomes, what can parents do?

Organizations such as KidsHealth (a part of the Nemours Foundation) and the American Psychological Association (APA) encourage parents to have an open dialogue with their children. Parents should feel encouraged to share the truth with their child, to the degree and at the level that they feel is appropriate. Both organizations urge parents to create an open and safe space that allows children to share their feelings and fears. When talking to children about tragedy, parents should listen to fears and respond to the child’s anxieties with reassurances of the child’s safety and security. Parents can even feel empowered to share their own feelings with their children and serve as an example to them of healthy emotional processing and sharing according to the APA.

Talking to children about tragedy can be difficult and tricky to navigate. That is why these research organizations (KidsHealth, Kansas State University, and the APA) have provided tips for parents in establishing some semblance of normalcy for children:

  • Implement routines – Routines provide children with structure and re-establish security and dependability. Maintaining a schedule that is reflective of their pre-pandemic schedule can help children acclimate to the new normal for the time being.
  • Encourage children to find an outlet – Playing, drawing, writing, and story-telling are all great and healthy outlets for children to share emotions that might otherwise be difficult to express.
  • “Look for the helpers” – Mister Rogers’ mother shared this advice with him in the wake of disasters and tragedies. These moments can teach children compassion, empathy, and the importance of helping others. Talking to children about tragedy can provide an opportunity to reframe conversations into something positive that can promote action and provide a sense of control.
  • Filter the news – Watching the news with your children is a great way of ensuring that everyone is informed. KidsHealth encourages parents to watch with their kids and talk about what they see and filter any overly disturbing or fearful images.

These are challenging times that we are facing, and it is our shared responsibility to be there for each other. We must be there for our friends, our family, and most of all our children. No one knows what life looks like post-COVID-19, but we can make today a little bit better by providing a listening ear for each other and talking to children to help them understand what’s going on around them.


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