How To Talk To Your Kids About Tragedies & Traumatic Events

"Although scary things do happen in the world, it’s important for your child to remember that good things happen, too"
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Whether it’s the death of a family member or yet another news story about gun violence, tragedies and traumatic events can be unsettling for your child no matter how old they are. But ignoring them or changing the subject won’t help them feel more at ease.

When it comes to kids and tragedy, learn how to start a meaningful discussion and explore tips to teach your child how to cope with traumatic events. 

How to Start the Conversation 

Before you address any scary events or tragedies with your child, assure them that they are safe and not alone. It’s important that you bring up the conversation at a time when your child is likely to want to talk, such as before or during dinner. You might also want to gauge how much they know or ask them if they have any questions or concerns about whatever event you’re about to discuss. Your child’s questions may be the best indicator of where to start the conversation. 

Explaining Scary Events & News to Your Child

When explaining scary events and news to your child, be sure to speak gently and honestly. Keep explanations simple, while also noting that some details will be inappropriate for a very young child. This time can also be used to correct any false information your child may have collected depending on where they heard about the event.  

While you talk to your child, follow up scary facts with reassurance. For instance, if your child is asking about a school shooting, you might reassure them by saying that their teachers and the police are putting safety measures in place to ensure that they will be safe at school. If someone they know was in a serious accident, you might put them at ease by telling them that a whole team of doctors and nurses are making sure they are in good care. Consider using this quote from Mister Rogers, which is often brought up after a tragedy:1 

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”

Continuing the Conversation Around Traumatic Events 

Maybe your child is not ready to talk. It’s best not to push them while also letting them know that you’re there for them if and when they do decide to talk. And if they do decide to talk, one conversation may not be enough to dispel their fears and worries. Let your child know that every question and feeling is valid. You might also share your own feelings to let them know that you are affected by the event too. 

You can also use a tragic event as a learning opportunity. For instance if a child abduction has occurred, you might ask your child what they would do if a stranger approached them with suspicious intentions. Candice Dye, M.D., pediatrician in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Pediatric Primary Care Clinic, explains: “With my own child, I said ‘what would you do if somebody you didn’t know tried to get you to go with them?’ I then could see what her level of response and understanding was and progressed the conversation from there…That’s a great way for parents to provide a learning lesson and instill confidence and safety in their child.”2

Helping Your Child Cope

It’s normal for your child to be affected by a traumatic news event, but if you find that they are not getting over the situation in a reasonable amount of time or that their reaction seems over-exaggerated, you may need some support from your child’s pediatrician or a counselor. It’s possible that a scary event could trigger anxiety in your child or exacerbate anxiety that already exists. 

If your child seems to be struggling for an extended period of time, and you’ve tried other tactics without success, you may want to give Brillia a try. Brillia is a non-prescription medication that is scientifically formulated to reduce anxiety, stress, irritability, and restlessness at the source of the symptoms by targeting the brain-specific S100B protein. This protein is a key regulator of many different intracellular and extracellular brain processes and plays a significant role in mood regulation. Brillia is free from synthetic chemicals and does not cause any harmful side effects or interactions with other drugs, so you can add it to your child’s regimen without worry.

Please keep in mind that the medication is not a quick fix. As a gentle and cumulative product, Brillia takes about  3-4 weeks to build up in the system, so please be patient and consistent with the medication before assessing results. During this time, it’s important that you continue to work with your child to manage their complex emotions around the difficult event and support them at home through healthy nutrition, adequate sleep, controlled screen time (where they may find even more distressing news), and by encouraging mindfulness practices.

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Tips to Keep in Mind  

When it comes to talking to children about tragedy, keep these easy tips in mind:

  • Listen
  • Reassure them
  • Ask clarifying questions
  • Correct false information
  • Be honest
  • Welcome all feelings and all questions
  • Limit their exposure to distressing news
  • Look for the silver lining
  • Seek outside support when needed

Reactions to Expect 

Depending on your child’s age and how they typically respond to stress, they may react in a variety of ways. Very young children may react to distressing news by clinging to you or reverting to behavior they would have outgrown by now, such as bedwetting. The Mayo Clinic advises parents not to criticize this behavior, but to keep an eye on it in case it escalates.3 

Older children and teens might react by expressing fear about going to school, losing their appetite, having trouble sleeping, and being distracted, tearful, or aggressive. They might also deny that they’re upset or refuse to talk about their concerns. Instead of expressing their emotions, they might report physical symptoms like stomach aches or headaches. 

While all of these reactions are normal, if your child continues to display these behaviors for an extended period of time, he or she might need outside support. You can also ask your child’s teacher if they are displaying any of these behaviors at school or if their schoolwork is being affected.

Preventing Future Distress in Teens and College-Age Kids 

Now is the time to lay the foundation for how your child will respond to stress and trauma as a teen, college-age kid, and young adult. Modeling healthy ways of managing difficult emotions is highly effective in ensuring your child will manage their own emotions later in life. This is why it’s important not to ignore or shield your child from scary events or tragedies as they occur. Acknowledging them and the feelings they provoke, welcoming questions, and taking action are the best ways to teach your child how to cope. 

It’s also never too early to introduce mindfulness and relaxation techniques to your child to help them manage their emotions. Practicing mindfulness as a family, such as group meditation or maybe just nature walks, is an easy way to make mindfulness a part of everyday life. Research shows that high-quality, structured mindfulness instruction may reduce the negative effects of stress and trauma related to adverse childhood exposures, improving both short- and long-term outcomes, and potentially reducing poor health outcomes in adulthood.4 

Taking Breaks from “Doom Scrolling” & the 24/7 News Cycle 

With constant updates via social media, TV, the radio, and beyond, the news cycle can feel unavoidable at times, leading to doom-scrolling and headline stress. Try to limit how much news both you and your child consume, especially during times of tragedy or disasters when scary images are likely to dominate every channel and news website. If you do watch the news to learn more about an event, try to watch with your child and let them know you’re open to any questions that may arise, but be sure to avoid graphic imagery that may cause distress or lead to nightmares.

What Else Can I Do? 

Another way you can help your child feel more confident during a difficult time is to brainstorm ways in which they can give back. This might be donating things they don’t need to people who may have had their homes damaged in a fire or earthquake, writing letters to politicians or lawmakers, or even saying thank you to a local frontline worker for keeping them safe. 

Although scary things do happen in the world, it’s important for your child to remember that good things happen, too. And helping them be part of that good is the best reminder.

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References: 1https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/nine_tips_for_talking_to_kids_about_trauma, 2https://www.uab.edu/news/youcanuse/item/10860-how-to-talk-to-your-children-about-tragedy-and-difficult-topics, 3https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/helping-children-cope/art-20047029, 4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5368427/

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