Discussing Tragic Events with Children

Northwestern Medicine
Psychiatry and Psychology April 15, 2013

Our thoughts are with the city of Boston and all those impacted by today's tragic events. An event of this magnitude affects us all, but can be particularly challenging for children to comprehend. To help parents as they address this tragedy with their children, we're re-posting a blog from December that offers a recommended approach from child and adolescent psychologist Dr. Jason Washburn

  • Talk to your children about the event. Understand their thoughts and feelings about the event, and make sure that you understand if they have any concerns.  Ask them open ended questions such as, “So what do you think about what happened?” or “How are you feeling about what happened.”  If they don’t immediately open up, share some of your thoughts or feelings as a way to start a conversation.  Avoid starting the conversation with pointed or leading questions, such as “Are you upset?” or “Are you feeling okay?”  Try to talk to your child at a time when you can devote your full attention and you can pay attention to wait they are communicating, both verbally and non-verbally. Avoid discussions before bedtime.
  • Reassure your children that they are safe.  Even though it seems that bad events are occurring more frequently, firmly reassure your children that these events, although horrible, are very rare.  If your child continues to feel concerned about their safety, work with them to develop a safety plan so that they know exactly what to do in an emergency situation.
  • Avoid over-exposure to media about the event. Limit how much information and time your child spends focusing on this event in both traditional and social media.  Keep the focus of your discussions on your child’s thoughts and feelings; avoid going over the details of the event.
  • Continue to keep the dialogue open with your child.  Let your child know that they can talk with you about this at any time.  If your child does not bring up the event again, you may want to casually check in with your child a day or so after the event.
  • Be aware of any changes in your child.  Children vary in their response to tragic and traumatic events. If your child’s response to an event includes persistent emotional reactions or changes in behavior, it may be necessary to seek additional assistance.  Specific warning signs include prolonged sadness, thoughts of death and dying, excessive worry, changes in appetite, sleep problems and/or nightmares, physical complaints (e.g., headaches, stomach aches), changes in school performance or refusing to go to school, new problems with peers or social isolation, or loss of interest in enjoyable activities. If you are concerned about your child, talk with their school counselor or school psychologist.
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