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 talk to your child about what happened. How do you explain it? 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 chance that he or she might hear about it elsewhere.

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

Take time to think about what you want to say. If possible, choose a time when your child is most likely to want to talk, such as before dinner. Ask your child what he or she already knows about the tragedy — and what questions or concerns he or she might have. Let your child's answers guide your discussion.

How do I explain the tragedy to my child?

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. Provide accurate information. Share your own thoughts and remind your child that you're there for him or her. Reassure your child that what happened isn't his or her fault.

Your child's age will affect 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 and give hugs.
  • Elementary and early middle school children. Children in this age range might have more questions about whether they're truly safe. They might 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.
Oct. 27, 2015 See more In-depth