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Talking To Children About Tragedy

Five considerations when speaking to your children about tragedies.

Don’t Over-Talk Adults can easily project our fears on to children. Do answer children’s questions in a way that reflects their asking. Try not to dwell on the tragic nature of an incident, yet don’t be evasive. Don’t lie or withhold information, but don’t be overly dramatic.

Shield Children from Media After 9/11 children suffered trauma from overexposure to the media. Child psychologists call this “secondary terrorism”. We might be tempted to take a stance that our children need to be tough, and they may as well know the truth. However, psychologists believe they need to be “coddled, cushioned and comforted” as children so they can be emotionally stronger later.

Leave your Children in School Try to keep routines as normal as possible. Go to sports practices and play dates as planned.

Reassure, Reassure If your children are afraid, explain the rare nature of tragedy. Tell them this never happened at your school, or a school in our neighborhood, etc. Let them know adults continue taking steps to keep them safe.

Remember that through “middle childhood” children have normal fears:the dark, sharks, etc.Repeatedly reassure children without dismissing their fears.Also, hugs and touch in general make a huge difference.

Age-Specific Tips

If you are talking to children younger than seven shield them.They don’t need to know about it.

Children seven-12 need to know they are safe, and they will look to adults for cues. It is okay to express appropriate emotions, like sadness. Ask them their feelings, and then support their feelings. For example, if a child says, “I am really scared” the worse thing to say is “There is no reason to be afraid.”Rather, tell them, “I understand your fear. This is a very sad and unusual situation. The bad guy has been caught and everyone is working to make your environment even more safe.”

Children over 12 may be engaged in a healthy conversation. Ask them why they think this happened?What could have prevented the tragedy? Children this age can even formulate logical, healthy responses, such as a charitable and positive action in response to tragedy.

(Taken from Dr. Alan Kazdin, Yale University professor of child psychology.)

For more information about children's grief and the effects of trauma, contact Austin Grief at

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