Tips for Talking with Children about Tragic and Threatening Situations

The following article was originally written to help parents know how to help their children cope with the tragedy of September 11, 2001. These same tools can help during other disturbing times, such as school shootings, acts of terrorism, natural disasters, and Coronavirus.

It is almost incomprehensible that hundreds, if not thousands, of children will be grieving not having a parent come home after the tragedy of September 11, 2001. The families who must explain the horrific events that have taken Mommy or Daddy away forever, will never be fully able to give satisfactory answers to these children who will be impacted for the rest of their lives.

But what about the millions of children watching these disasters on the news and hearing their friends and teachers talk about them at school and on the playground? Who will try to explain intentional acts of violence to these children? Probably their parents. What can a parent say to try to bring some order to absolutely senseless destructive events?

The following are guidelines to help parents talk with children about the horrific images and catastrophic events about which children will be asking.

  1. Be respectful of children’s feelings. If a child is very upset, it is the natural response of a parent to try to, “calm the child down”. However, many ways intended to calm a child may actually increase their fears. Telling a child “Everything is OK, you are over reacting, nothing is going to happen to us”, is likely to increase a child’s fear. They will probably hear, “I think your concerns are silly. You didn’t see what you thought you saw, and you didn’t understand what you thought you heard.” It is better to ask further questions first so a child knows you do respect his or her concerns. Such as, “What about the news do you find frightening? What are you afraid will happen to you/us? What are you wondering about?” These questions will not only help your child feel you care about his or her feelings, but will also give you valuable information about what real questions your child has, not what you think might be the issues.
  2. Answer the questions asked by your child, but do not give more details than necessary. Base this information on age and maturity of your child. A young child will only need basic facts. Older children who have heard more information may have more questions and need a little more detail. Use concrete and short answers. Remember to address your child’s concerns… not yours. Children are very self-focused revolving around issues of immediate concern to them. “How do I know I am safe now? Will my school be open? Will an airplane crash into our house? Are we going to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving?” are more likely questions than the more philosophic and wide reaching questions you may be asking.
  3. Your child will look to you for cues as to how safe or unsafe life is. If you are glued to the news and talking only about the disasters, your children will assume danger is close at hand and things are very unsafe. If you are participating in normal life activities, your children will learn that even though bad things have happened, your family is safe and you are feeling comfortable enough to carry on with your responsibilities and commitments. Following a regular schedule can also be reassuring to your child.
  4. Point out specific ways you feel safe. Note the things you feel grateful for. Note that your family is safe, the school they attend is safe, and your work place is safe. Comment on how fortunate you are to live in country where this is a very rare incidence. Let your children know you feel grateful and safe as often as you can find the opportunity to do so.
  5. Children will interpret your expressions of anger, anxiety and stress as danger signals. Do everything you can to keep your frustration tolerance high. Eat well and frequently, get enough rest, and surround yourself with the support of friends and family. If you have patience and are slow to get mad and don’t show signs of worry and rumination, your children are much more likely to believe you can keep them safe. They will see you as believing the people in charge of making government decisions will keep them safe as well. If you are angry and venting and talking about how worried you are, your children will believe the people in a position of power in their lives will not be able to keep them safe.
  6. Turn the news off while you eat. Don’t have the TV on while preparing for school. Listen to other things on the radio than just recent re-hashings of the disaster. Don’t let children think keeping up with the news is more important to you than they are.
  7. Watch for signs of trauma in your child. Young children may show sleep disturbances, eating disturbances, nightmares and regression. (Regression is when a child goes back to a previous level of functioning, such as wetting the bed, sucking the thumb, sleeping with parent, etc.) Older children may show signs of agitation, poor concentration, isolation, withdrawing from friends, poor school performance, outbursts of anger, etc. If you think your child is exhibiting signs of being traumatized seek the help of a mental health professional or your family physician.
  8. Use this opportunity to portray your values to your children. This is a chance to talk to your child about the nature of hate, retaliation, fear and how these feed on each other generation after generation. The highjackers were filled with hate and desired for revenge. What lessons do you want to give your children to take into the world as they grow into adults? This is a great time to support your child in joining in a volunteer project at school or through a “Y” program or a religious organization. Giving back to those in greater distress can bring a sense of order and control to children. Teenagers especially benefit from comforting friends and supporting others in greater need than themselves.
  9. Let children know just because a few people who belong to a group act in destructive ways, not all people in that group hold the same values. Would your child want his or her entire class judged on the bad behavior of one acting-out student? If a child does something very bad and is suspended from the school would they want everyone to think that all the kids who went to that school would do the same thing? Let your child know individuals are responsible for their choices regardless of the group they belong to.
  10. This is a wonderful opportunity to convey your spiritual values. Take time to let your child know what you believe. If you believe in an ordered Universe and you know there is a bigger plan than might be readily seen, let your child know this. If you feel guided and provided for, let your child know you feel this deeply. Children do not forget lessons taught at tragic times like this. This is a good time to pray with your child or do rituals that help create a sense of safety. Such as, attending spiritual services, participating in family traditions, reading together, planting a tree or creating a sacred space.