When tragic events occur, it may be difficult to answer your children’s questions, as you may be grappling with the same questions yourself.
You don’t have to have all the answers, but it’s important to talk with and give your kids the support they need to deal positively with any upsetting information.
Children may ask questions while in the car, playing a game, reading a story or getting ready for bed. You may want to ask what they know about the situation first. You can then build on this or correct any inaccuracies. The amount and type of discussion will vary depending on whether the event impacts your family directly or has occurred elsewhere (a tornado that destroyed your children’s school versus one in another state).
Past life stressors can also influence the conversation as they can predispose to increased anxiety when a tragedy occurs. You can look at the discussion as an opportunity to have a teachable moment. Reassure your kids that they are safe and that you are available to help them manage the stress of a disturbing event. Discuss your family plan for emergencies if that is germane to the tragedy. You know your kids best and how much information they can handle. Being aware of your children’s developmental and cognitive levels as well as their past exposure to tragedies can help guide the discussion.
Children younger than two will normally be unaware of events that do not impact them directly, but they can sense your anxiety and may react to your stress. If you remain clam during a difficult conversation you can help your child deal with an event. Children ages two to five have increasing verbal skills and awareness of their surroundings, but a poor sense of time. If a tragic event occurs, they may think they actually caused the event. Children are sponges regarding language. They may not appear to be listening to adult conversation and later be able to relate information they overheard. You need to be mindful of discussion around them. Hearing about events or seeing them replayed on TV may make kids think an upsetting event is continuing to occur. Turn off the TV when they are present or if they can hear it from another room. When they ask a question, answer as simply as you can without lengthy explanations. You do not need to discuss all the details.
Children ages 6-11 understand time and are more aware of their world. They can follow TV broadcasts, and older children can read newspaper headlines. Add to this the impact of social media and your children can become overwhelmed by continuous discussion of an event. Turn off the TV and limit access to social media. Answer your children’s questions as honestly as possible. Reassure them if they have specific fears.
Adolescents may want to discuss not only the details of an event but the reason as well. They, too, can become overwhelmed by the coverage of a tragic event on TV or on social media. Your teen may be concerned about the ramifications the event may have for them. If a tragedy is not directly impacting them they may want a philosophical discussion. However, if it is more close to home they may be concerned about more concrete issues (when school will start, when they will be able to contact their friends, when it will be safe to drive). They may want to assist in a local tragedy, which can help to give them a feeling of control over the situation.
If your children hear about an incident involving a child or children specifically, they may react with increased questions. Some children’s reactions may be same as hearing about an incident involving only adults. For example, your child may see information on TV about refugee children overseas. Their questions may relate more to logistics: Who feeds the children, where do they sleep, where do they play? You could answer as accurately as you can and reassure them that it is unlikely the event could happen to them. Or, they may hear of a kidnapping. You could use this as teachable moment to remind them about not getting near or into cars with strangers or, for older children, not posting personal information on the Internet. Proximity to an event can increase distress, so hearing of a kidnapping in another state would not be expected to cause as much distress to your child as hearing of a kidnapping of someone your child knows. If an event occurs in your community, you may want to take advantage of any counseling services provided locally, such as at the local school.
Not all kids will want to discuss an event in detail. Some may ask one or two questions and then go on with their usual activities. Others may want more details and may ask if such an event could happen to them. Routine is important, and trying to reassure your children about or explaining changes in schedules — if related to the tragedy — will be helpful. If your family practices a specific faith, you may want to discuss the tragedy in the context of your religious beliefs. Kids sometimes will not show signs of distress for 6 to 12 months after an upsetting situation. Regression in behavior can occur with any tragedy. If an event seems to be causing undue stress (continued regression, anxiety, continued sadness, anger, inability to participate in daily routines, drop in grades), contact your healthcare provider or counselor for further guidance. By being a supportive resource, you can help your children deal with distressing events.
Christina Rickenback, MSN, APRN, CPNP, is a PNP at Wildwood Pediatrics in Essex, CT. She is also a member of the Children in Disasters special interest group at NAPNAP.