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Discussing Tragedies and Other News Events with Children

​​In the aftermath of disasters or crises, people struggle with what they should say to their children and what not to share with them.

It has been recommended by the AAP that parents, childcare providers, teachers, and anyone who works with children help filter event information so that a child will be able to understand the event, adjust to it and then cope with the event. 

Starting at Any Age

Parents can ask their children what they’ve already heard, no matter their age or developmental stage. It doesn’t matter how old you are. Most children have heard of something. You should ask them if they have any questions after hearing what they have heard.

Young adults, adolescents, and older children might have more questions and may request and benefit from more information. It’s best to keep a direct and straightforward conversation no matter the age of the child.​

​Exposure to media and graphic details should be avoided

The best way to communicate with children is to share essential information and not graphic details. To understand what’s happening, children and adults want the same thing. It is advisable to avoid using graphic information.

Young children should not be exposed to repetitive graphic images and sounds in the media, such as television, radio, social media, or computers.

It is better to record the news in advance if you want your older children to watch it. By previewing it and evaluating its contents, you will have a better idea of what to expect when you sit down with them to see it. When necessary, you can pause, stop, and discuss the movie while watching it with them.

Typically, children tend to follow any good advice that is given, yet, you have to provide space for them to decide what they are going to be ready for. You can stop them from seeing the newspaper that comes to the door, for instance, and not the one that comes from a store. Many older children are going to have access to graphic images and news through social media as well as other apps on their smartphones. You need to be aware of what’s out there and take steps in advance to talk to children about what they might hear or see.

Having a Conversation with Very Young Children

There is no doubt that even young children as young as four years old will be informed about major crises. Instead of another child or the media, they should hear about it from a parent or caregiver.

Children of all ages need accurate information. However, you don’t want to be too vague. Using a cliché like “Something bad happened in a faraway town” doesn’t provide much information about what happened. There is no reason for the child to understand why this is so different from the everyday injuries sustained by people. If these things bother you, that’s okay. That’s the underlying message a parent should convey. The purpose of this meeting is to support each other.”


Discussing with a grade-schooler or a teen

After asking your children about what they heard and if they have questions about what happened during a school shooting, a bombing in a community, an international disaster, or anything else, parents can say something like this:

“Yes. There was a disaster in [city], [state]” (and here, you’d need some context, depending on where it is), and many people were injured. Police officers and government officials are doing what they can to keep it from happening again.”

Based on how the child reacts and his or her questions, the parent can follow up accordingly.

The importance of talking to children who have developmental delays or disabilities

Rather than considering your child’s physical age when responding to your child who has a developmental delay or disability, parents should tailor their responses to their child’s development or abilities. Your response to a child who has intellectual functioning is similar to that of a 7-year-old; for example, it should be geared toward her developmental stage. Don’t give too much information at the beginning. Be as clear and as appropriate as possible when providing details or information.

How to talk to a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder  (ASD)

The needs of an autistic child may differ from those of a typical child. Compared to other children, the child may feel less comfortable cuddling. If their child can’t settle or comfort themselves on other occasions, they should try doing something else that does. You might want to ask yourself, “Given my child’s personality, temperament, and developmental capabilities, what might work for him?”

How to Tell if Your Child Is Not Coping Well

Parents may see signs that their children are having difficulty adjusting if they don’t have a chance to practice coping in a healthy way. The following are some things to watch for:

  • Problems sleeping or staying asleep, trouble waking, nightmares, or other sleep disturbances should be considered signs of sleep disorders.
  • There may be physical complaints such as feeling tired, having a headache, or feeling generally unwell. If your child eats too much or too little than usual, you may notice.
  • Be on the lookout for signs such as becoming less patient, acting immature, social regression, being more demanding and less patient, and various other signs of regressive behavior. There is a chance that clinginess may develop in a child who would usually be able to separate from her parents easily. During adolescence, teens may start to use tobacco, alcohol, or other substances or alter their current patterns.
  • Anxiety, sadness, depression, or fears may accompany children’s emotional problems.

When facing an unusual event, it can sometimes be challenging to identify whether the child is reacting normally or if he or she needs extra help to cope. If you have concerns, speak to your child’s pediatrician or mental health professional, or counselor.

Don’t wait for signs to appear. Keep the dialogue going by beginning the discussion early.