When It’s Scary and Sad: Talking to Children About Death and Tragedy
When tragedy strikes, whether it involves your family or a larger situation like the recent riot that took place at the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C., it can often be hard to determine what is the right thing to say to the youngest people affected — our children.
“What is developmentally appropriate? What will do more harm than good? Do I have to put on a brave face?” parents may ask themselves. We spoke with two professionals about how to talk to kids about tragic circumstances and death.
Create an Open Channel of Safe Communication
Every child is different in their response, and it is situation-specific. That’s why it’s important to get their interpretation of what they perceive has happened and what they have seen or heard. if it’s easier for your child to communicate by writing or drawing, encourage those tools to allow them to express themselves.
Leah Santa Maria is a school counselor at Forest Meadow Junior High in the Richardson Independent School District. Prior to that, she was a counselor at Merriman Park Elementary, also in RISD.
“When talking to your kids about a traumatic situation, one of the most important things is allowing them to feel safe sharing with you and asking questions,” Santa Maria says. “Let your child know that you are here to listen and will try your best to answer what he/she asks.”
And it’s OK if things are hard to explain, she adds.
“Some things are hard even for adults to explain, and it’s OK for kids to know that we don’t always have the answers. Most of the time, kids just want someone who will listen to them, without judgment.”
Build Honest, But Age-Appropriate Responses
For many parents, the first instinct is to shield children from the worst of the news coverage of traumatic events. Santa Maria says that parents can serve as a valuable filter to determine what is age-appropriate and what their child can handle.
“Of course this depends on the age of your child and the level of comfort you have divulging in these topics,” she says. “Honestly, kids really don’t need all the explicit details, but giving them a general idea of what has happened in their community can help them understand why the news is reporting the event.”
Giving them developmentally appropriate facts also serves another purpose, Santa Maria says.
“This also allows them the opportunity to connect with their community and feel a sense of empathy for the people around them.”
Michelle Kinder, executive director of the Momentous Institute in Dallas, a program that works to develop social and emotional health in children, adds that it’s important for parents to reiterate to their children that they are not alone — emotionally or physically.
“You can say: ‘I am here for you and always will be,’” she says. “‘You have a long list of people who care about you and are always going to make sure you are OK.’”
Kinder also recommends checking with your child regularly to make sure they’re well.
Help Them Continually Process
As the days turn into weeks following the event, keep reassuring them that they are safe and open to ask questions or discuss anything with you whenever they need to. This can help alleviate any fears, confusion or anxiety they have that something bad will also happen to them, their friends or family members. But don’t overload children, especially young children, with concepts or information that they can’t possibly grasp. The important thing is to help them keep processing the information.
Age-appropriate books are also a great way to help facilitate conversation. Kinder recommends the book Helping Children Cope with the Loss of a Loved One: A Guide for Grownups: A Guide for Grown Ups, by William C. Kroen.
“It is my favorite book in such situations because it breaks things down by developmental stage in a really nice way,” she says.
The book The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, which details the life of a leaf, is a great way to start a conversation about the death of a loved one and is also easily interpreted by children of several different ages and emotional maturities.
“The most important thing parents can do is help their children form a coherent narrative — a story that makes sense to them,” Kinder adds. “Humans are meaning-makers, and it is in making meaning that we find a way forward.”
Above all, Kinder says, instill hope in your child.
“You can put recent events in a larger context by saying: ‘Things we can’t understand happen every day, but we hold hope, believe in love and bring good into this world with everything we say and do,'” she explains. “‘When so much is out of our control, this never is. I love you, and this world needs your light.’”
If you are worried about your child’s response to recent events and need support, counselors and support groups are available throughout the Texas Health family. For more information about what’s available in your area, call 1-877-THR-WELL.