Helping children cope: Tips for talking about tragedy

After a tragedy, you might feel helpless — but your child needs your support. Here's help knowing what to say. By Mayo Clinic Staff

When a tragedy — such as a natural disaster, mass shooting or terrorist attack — occurs, it can be hard to know how to talk to your child about what happened. What do you say? How much will he or she understand? Find out how to start the conversation and what you can do to help your child cope.

Do I need to talk to my child about a tragedy?

Talking to your child about a tragedy can help him or her understand what's happened, feel safe and begin to cope.

If you don't speak to your child about a tragedy, there's a good chance that he or she might hear about it from someone else — whether from the news, the radio, social media, friends or family. Not talking about a tragedy also might give your child the sense that what happened is too horrible to talk about, which could make the event seem even more threatening.

How do I start a conversation with my child about a tragedy?

There's not necessarily a right or wrong way to talk to your child about a tragic event. Start by taking time to think about what you want to say.

When you're ready, choose a time when your child is most likely to want to talk, such as at bedtime. You might start by asking your child what he or she already knows about the tragedy. What has your child heard in school or seen on TV? Ask your child what questions or concerns he or she might have. Let your child's answers guide your discussion.

Do your best to make your child feel comfortable asking questions and discussing what happened. However, don't force your child to talk if he or she isn't ready.

How do I explain the tragedy to my child?

When talking to your child about a tragedy, tell the truth. Focus on the basics, and avoid sharing unnecessary details. Don't exaggerate or speculate about what might happen. Avoid dwelling on the scale or scope of the tragedy.

Listen closely to your child for misinformation, misconceptions and underlying fears. Take time to provide accurate information. Share your own thoughts and remind your child that you're there for him or her. Also, be sure to explain to your child that the event isn't his or her fault.

Your child's age will play a major role in how he or she processes information about a tragedy. Consider these tips:

  • Preschool children. Get down to your child's eye level. Speak in a calm and gentle voice using words your child understands. Explain what happened and how it might affect your child. For example, after a severe storm you might say that a tree fell on electrical wires and now the lights don't work. Share steps that are being taken to keep your child safe. Give your child plenty of hugs.
  • Elementary and early middle school children. Children in this age range might have more questions about whether they're truly safe. They might also need help separating fantasy from reality.
  • Upper middle school and high school children. Older children will want more information about the tragedy and recovery efforts. They're more likely to have strong opinions about the causes, as well as suggestions about how to prevent future tragedies and a desire to help those affected.

Be prepared to repeat information that might be hard for your child to understand or accept. If your child asks the same question repeatedly, keep in mind that he or she might be looking for reassurance.

Dec. 27, 2012 See more In-depth