7 Tips for Talking with Children about Tragic and Threatening Situations

The original title of this article was “7 Tips for Talking with Children about the Threat of War.” It has been renamed, as the suggestions can be adapted to other major national or global events, such as the Hurricane Katrina and Sandy devastation, the Aurora, CO and Newtown, CT shootings, and the Boston Marathon bombing.

  • Listen attentively when kids want to talk. First, before you say anything else, restate back to them what you heard them say, even if you disagree or it is painful to see them upset. It is most important children know you care about their thoughts and feelings. (They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.)
  • Speak about world events without intense anger or fear. Children interpret anger as parents being afraid. In uncertain times children need to feel their parents are strong. Parents expressing strong anger or showing anxious and fearful behaviors will lead kids to feel unsafe.
  • Use this opportunity to show your child how you arrive at conclusions. Talk about your history, world history, your values, and the process by which you arrive at your ideas. Self-revealing your thought process with your child will encourage him or her to think things through rather than accepting someone else’s conclusions just because they are presented adamantly.
  • Take this time to share your spiritual beliefs with your children. If you believe in a greater Divine order to things or you believe that you are protected and guided, make sure you express these ideas to your child. Attend spiritual services with your family so your children can be around other children with similar beliefs. And be sure you act and behave in accordance with the beliefs you express.
  • Help your child take some kind of action. This could be as simple as putting out the flag, sending a card to someone stationed abroad, writing a news paper editor, or politician with his or her ideas. Your child could take treats to the family of a service man or woman, or to a veteran, or write to a group they feel may be frightened or oppressed. Helping your child take an active role in making others feel supported will go a long way toward helping your child feel a sense of control, safety and belonging.
  • Limit graphic or redundant exposure to media events or commentaries that may be disturbing to children. Often children do not understand that something reported in the news is a repeat of an earlier event, and may interpret it as a new and separate event added to the one previously viewed. Children may have greatly exaggerated beliefs about world events after watching the news repeatedly. Make sure you ask about their ideas so you can give clarifications.
  • Possible mild signs of regression such as; asking a lot of questions, asking for reassurance, wanting to sleep in parent’s room, bad dreams, tearfulness, or shyness should pass in a short amount of time. More serious symptoms of stress such as sleep disturbances, eating changes, drop in grades or concentration, isolation from family or friends or bed-wetting may be indications of a clinical depression or clinical levels of anxiety. If your child exhibits any of these more serious indicators for more than two weeks an evaluation by a licensed mental health professional is recommended.