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Talking to kids about tragedy

When evil strikes or a disaster hits, our parental instinct is to reassure our kids that everything will be OK. But what can really help them feel safe is a measured blend of listening and honesty — once we’ve calmed down ourselves, of course!

Concerned mom talking to her daughter

I’ve been taking notes on how to talk to kids in the wake of tragedy my whole life.

When I was in college, my mom survived a terrible car crash. My father, a veteran police officer skilled in delivering tragic news, greeted me with these words: “Your mother was in a car crash and the passenger in the other car died.”

Note to self: Tell children good news first.

In grad school, I cheerfully opened an email from my father informing me that my beloved adopted grandmother had died. (I had never received an email that she was sick.)

Note to self: Avoid emailing funeral details until after a conversation to convey one’s passing.

Since I’m already an expert on what not to do, I decided I should discuss what to do with a child psychologist at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, Dr. Daniel Hilliker. (Although, I forgot to ask how I should warn my Dad about this article.) 

The Mayo Clinic Children’s Center provides care for more than 50,000 children and teens annually. Every day, Dr. Hilliker works with children and their families who are dealing with very personal tragedy. Himself a father of two, he has an easy, exceedingly calm demeanor by phone.

Note to self: Get Dr. Hilliker on speed dial before my kids are old enough to process tragedy.

Kids are resilient

As we chat about dealing with heartbreak, horror and mayhem, his tone is so calming, I begin to think, “What am I worried about?” Then I remember he’s a professional calmer-downer. He’s good, I think.

His tips are general, emphasizing his point that dealing with human emotion simply isn’t black and white. My biggest takeaway? Relax. Kids are resilient. And while that’s not a free pass to bury your head under the couch pillows whenever your child and a tragedy cross paths, it should offer comfort.

“Just as we can’t provide a perfect recipe for how any one parent should reassure a particular child, we can’t predict with any kind of reliability how kids are going to respond to difficult events,” Dr. Hilliker explains.

He points out a child’s immediate reactions, which may range from sadness, anger, anxiety, confusion or even curiosity to what may seem a startling lack of response, “will likely morph a number of times as kids process the events.”

While those initial reactions may be unexpected, Dr. Hilliker advises that parents “err on the side of talking a little bit to kids.”

Assess your child’s situation

The foundation of a child’s ability to process, understand and cope depends first on whether she is developmentally capable and what types of experiences, if any, may color her understanding and reactions.

“Let them lead the conversation,” Dr. Hilliker advises. “Rather than assuming what they know or how they feel about it, give them some open-ended lead-ins.”

Consider these questions:

  • Is your child developmentally capable of understanding the events?
  • Has your child had any previous experience with difficult news or personal tragedy?
  • Has your child heard anything? If so, what?
  • How did your child understand or feel about the events?
  • Are other kids talking about the event?
  • What has your child heard through social media?

If you’ve determined it’s time to dive in further, “don’t feel like talking with kids about it is going to necessarily scare them, or that it’s bad for them to talk [or think] about [the event],” Dr. Hilliker says. “What we’ve found consistently is that if you provide honest, age-appropriate information without going into too much detail, kids seem to benefit from that and in fact feel less anxious [later], when they feel like they have a mastery of the information.”

Avoid guarantees

As tempting as it is to offer quick promises that your child will always be safe and never encounter evil, Dr. Hilliker calls such reassurances a definite “don’t.”

“It’s not good business to give guarantees,” he warns, “but it’s OK to give them the message that we don’t have any reason to believe that this is going to happen here, and we’ve worked really hard to make sure… [something like that won’t happen].”

Limit repeated exposure

Dr. Hilliker’s voice took on an urgent tone only once during our conversation: “Kids do not benefit [from watching excessive media coverage],” he warns, “And in fact probably are more susceptible to anxiety and vicarious trauma when they’re allowed to have exposure to ongoing coverage.”

If that’s not enough to get you to turn off the tube, consider his next point: “With younger kids, at times they don’t understand that it’s not happening again and again [as news broadcasts loop the same images repeatedly], and it can be more traumatic.”

Be honest about your own emotions

While Dr. Hilliker recommends being calm and pulled together when starting a tough conversation with your child, “it’s OK to talk about some of your own reactions,” he says.

“It’s a way of modeling for kids how to talk about feelings [while] validating how someone else feels, too. It’s also a way of mixing in [the message] that I feel really sad or angry or horrified, and here’s what I’m going to do to try to cope.”

What next? Tips to help your child cope

  • Connect with other people. “Give kids the message that we’re having this conversation now because I want you to feel it’s OK to talk about this and to even expect to have more conversations like this,” Dr. Hilliker says.
  • Maintain routines and “usual” activities. “Kids feel better when they’re doing typical things, which gives them the implicit message that they’re OK. If you break up those routines and dramatically change things, the message is that this is so bad that we can’t continue with our typical routines.”
  • Look around the neighborhood. Dr. Hilliker refers to Mr. Rogers’ famous advice to “look for the helpers.” “When you’re thinking about the potential for people to do evil things, it’s great to be able to counter that with, ‘look at all these people who are looking for ways to help other people — we’ve got them outnumbered!'” Dr. Hilliker says.
  • Talk about your own family’s safety. “Younger kids benefit from thinking about ways that other people are looking out for them and keeping them safe.”

Still feel like you might blow it? “Resilience in kids is the rule, not the exception,” Dr. Hilliker reassures. “You don’t have to feel like your kids are going to shatter if you make one little mix-up. You can override that by continuing to communicate.

“Tell yourself this is the process… and we’re going to turn the page.”

Note to self: Remind Dad that I actually turned out OK, and advise that we turn the page on this little article.

More about talking to kids about bad news

Boston Marathon bombings: How to talk to your kids about tragedy
Connecticut school shootings: Talking to your kids about violence
How to give your kids bad news

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