Bad things happen. It’s just a terrible fact. So how do you talk to your child when tragedy strikes?

The TV is on and the news is reporting a terrorist attack or some other horrific incident. Before you can hit the ‘off’ button, your child hears the story. Here comes the questions. Understanding how to talk to your child about scary news is sadly part of parenting.

If you’re thinking about putting a stop to the questions before they start, completely shielding your child from all ‘bad’ or ‘scary’ news isn’t always practical. Yes, you can limit screen time. That’s helpful when it comes to minimizing the number of images and stories your child sees and hears. That said, with the constant availability of news on the television and online, it’s not exactly an easy task. Between laptops, tablets and smartphones, growing technology use makes information ever-present in your (and your child’s) life.

Offer Answers

It’s tempting to keep quiet and gently brush your child’s questions away. But experts warn against doing that. In an interview with BBC News, consultant clinical psychologist Emma Citron said parents should speak with their children about traffic events such as the recent bombing in Manchester, “Give children basic facts, tell them what it is they want to know, ask them what they would like to know and then give them access to that.”

Ask Questions

Your child isn’t the only one with questions. Don’t assume you know what she’s thinking or what is frightening her right now. After hearing about a scary event, ask your child what questions she has. And don’t stop there.

You already know your child’s mind doesn’t exactly work the same way yours does. Make sure that you’re hearing what your child is telling you. This often means coming back with a follow-up question or paraphrasing what your child is saying. A simple, “I’m scared of bad people” from your child may mean many different things to her. You need to know who she’s scared of, why and what she thinks that fear means in her life. Is she worried that the bad person will come to her house? Is she anxious that there are bad people at her school? Or, is she scared that anyone could be a ‘bad person’?

Provide Realistic Comfort

No mum wants her child to feel fear. When your child looks up at you and says, “I’m scared mummy,” your first instinct is probably to respond with, “Don’t worry. There’s absolutely nothing for you to be scared about.” Sadly, that just isn’t true.

At the same time, you don’t want your child going out into the world worrying that there’s danger lurking in every corner or that she’s going to end up on the news in one of these televised tragedies. It’s okay to tell the truth. Just do so in a reassuring, comforting way. Yes, there are bad things that happen. But they don’t happen all the time, in every place to everyone. Your child needs to know that something like a bombing or a mass shooting is rare and isn’t the norm.

Along with explaining that major tragedies (like what she sees on TV) aren’t everyday occurrences, you also need to talk about the people who work diligently to protect her. For example, that might mean pointing out that there are more police or security officers at a major music event to make sure that what happened in Manchester isn’t repeated.

Stay Calm

Your child isn’t the only one who is having feelings after learning about a horrific tragedy. When the news of a bombing or shooting is all over the media, you feel pain, sadness, confusion and anxiety as well. It’s okay to have emotions after learning about something tragic. And it’s also okay to show them. This lets your child know that she’s not alone and that what she’s feeling is a normal response to a very bad situation.

Unlike your child, you have a much more mature ability to keep your emotions in check. Stay calm and avoid outbursts that may frighten your child. Shedding a few tears, having a sad face or saying, “That’s tragic. I’m so sad” is perfectly acceptable. After all, you are human. But a constant stream of, “I’m so scared” types of phrases will only magnify your child’s anxiety.

Take a deep breath, put your own feelings into perspective and focus on helping your child through this troubling time. Reassure your child that you, and other adults such as the police, are here to keep her safe. Field her questions with composure, but let her know that you understand what she’s feeling too.

Dealing with tragic types of news stories can be unsettling. If you’re struggling to get your child started and she just won’t open up, check out this video. The clip is brief, but it provides simple, straightforward advice for kids on handling upsetting news.

Author

Erica Loop is a mum, parenting writer and educator with an MS in child development. Along with writing for websites such as PBS Parents, care.com, Scary Mommy, mom.me, Modern Mom, education.com and others, she also is the creator of a kids' activities and art blog.

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