How to Talk to Children about Scary Events
People across the United States are heartbroken by the shooting in Uvalde. We want schools to be safe. We want our children to feel safe. Parents are processing their own reactions and wondering whether they should tell their children what happened and, if so, how. As much as you want to protect your children from knowing about tragedy and shielding them from the news, there are consequences to not telling them. And we need to think about the reasons why we wouldn’t. What role does our discomfort play in avoiding these conversations?
Below are my reasoning and suggestions for having these conversations. I have tried to consider my experiences with children and research on children’s development. My goal is to empower you to open the lines of communication and deliver accurate, age-appropriate information to your children.
Why Tell Your Children?
- Because, depending on their age, they are likely to find out—remember that your children hear things from friends, siblings, older peers who talk about it and, the ever-present news
- You want to be the source of information for your children—not another child, not the media, not even other adults (who may not realize the sensitivity of little ears)
- Knowledge is empowering. Children (and adults) are more empowered when they know things and, if other children know things they don’t, they can feel left out or embarrassed
- You do not want your children to think you are uncomfortable talking about upsetting topics (even if you are)—this can stop them from coming to you down the road when they have bigger issues and need help
How to Prepare:
- Take a moment, process your own feelings, and do something to manage your emotions (e.g., exercise, use relaxation strategies, talk to a friend)
- Make a plan with all caregivers of your children—discuss some common language to use
- Think about what you want your children to know about the event
- Consider each child’s personality and sensitivities, including how they have reacted to upsetting information in the past
- Try to anticipate questions and prepare your answers. Some of the tougher questions that children may ask include: – Can this happen to me? – Why did that happen?
- Roleplay the conversation with your children with your spouse, another family member, or friend—someone who has a sense of how your children will respond
- Turn off the media coverage
An Outline of the Conversation
- Start by asking your children what they know about the trauma. For example: “There has been a lot in the news about a sad thing that happened in Texas, and I wonder what you’ve heard. What is it about?” You will learn what they heard, what correct or incorrect information they have, what questions they might have
- Tell them what happened. Your goal is to balance honesty with conveying a sense of safety. Use short phrases (e.g., “19 children and 2 teachers were shot with a gun at a school in Texas”) and observe your children’s responses
- Encourage questions.
- If the question is factual (e.g., “Did they die?”), answer it (i.e., “Yes”). Answer only the question that is asked—children tend to ask questions that can handle the answers to
- If the question is conceptual (e.g., “Why would someone do this?”), ask your children what they think. Their answer will provide guidance to you about next steps—follow their lead. It is okay to say that you need time to think about and/or research an answer to their question. You can also say “I don’t know but will tell you if I find out more” or “There can be different reasons, but it is never the right solution.”
- Identify others (e.g., friends with like-minded parents) with whom your children can discuss the event. Discourage children from being the source of information for other children—their parents get to decide what they know
- Remember it is more than one conversation. You can end by telling your children that it is natural for them to have more thoughts and/or questions over time. You should encourage them to talk about the topic again with you.
- Share what you talked about with the other caregivers in your child’s life and help them with how to listen and talk to your children.
- Pay close attention to your children for a few days. Listen to how they discuss the event with others and how they are interacting with you. If they seem agitated, ask them about their feelings, thoughts, and behavior since learning of the event. Encourage them to do things that have made them feel better when upset in the past
- Connect with schools, other local resources, national experts, mental health professionals in your community as needed.
Elissa Brown, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Psychology, and Executive Director, Child HELP Partnership at St. John’s University, was recently awarded a $3 million grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
© 2023 Child HELP Partnership