October 26, 2017

Talking to Children about Tragedies in the News – Expert Advice for Parents

By Jai Robert Kumar, MD

When tragedies like the shooting in Las Vegas or natural disasters like hurricanes Harvey and Maria appear in the news, parents struggle with what they should or should not share and discuss with their children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages parents, teachers and childcare providers to filter information about the crisis and present it in a way that their child can adjust to and cope with.

Where to Start – All Ages

Parents can start by asking a child what they’ve already heard. Most children will have heard something, no matter how old they are. After you ask them what they’ve heard, ask what questions they have.  It’s best to keep the dialogue straightforward and direct.

Avoiding Graphic Details and Exposure to Media

In general, it’s best to share only basic information, and not graphic or unnecessary details, about the tragedy. Most children want to be able to understand enough so they know what’s going on. But graphic images should be avoided.

Keep children away from repetitive images and sounds that may appear on television, radio, social media, websites, etc.

With older children, if you do allow them to watch the news, record it ahead of time. This allows you to preview it and evaluate its contents before you sit down with them to watch it. Then, as you watch it with them, you can stop, pause and have a discussion when you need to.

Talking to Very Young Children

The reality is that even young children will hear about, and then have concerns about, major crisis events. It’s best that they hear about it from a parent or caregiver, as opposed to another child or in the media.

Even the youngest child needs accurate information, but you don’t want to be too vague. Simply saying “Something happened in a far-away town and some people got hurt” doesn’t tell the child enough about what happened. The child may not understand why this is so different from people getting hurt every day and why so much is being said about it.

Talking to Grade School Children and Teens

After asking your child what they have heard and if they have questions, a parent can say something such as:

“Yes. In [city], [state]” (and here you might need to give some context, depending on whether it’s nearby or far away, for example, ‘That’s a city/state that’s pretty far from/close to here’), “there was a disaster and many people were hurt. The police and the government are doing their jobs, so they can try to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

A parent can follow up as needed based on the child’s reactions and questions.

Talking to Children with Developmental Delays or Disabilities

Parents who have a child with a developmental delay or disability should gear their responses to their child’s developmental level, rather than their physical age. If you have a teenage child whose level of intellectual functioning is more similar to a 7 year old, for instance, gear your response toward their developmental level. Start by giving less information. Provide information in the most appropriate and clear way you can.

Talking to Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

What’s helpful to a child with an ASD may be different. For instance, the child may find less comfort in cuddling than some other children. Parents should try something else that has worked to calm and comfort their child on other occasions. Ask yourself, “Given who my child is, his temperament and developmental abilities, what might work for him?”

Encourage Resiliency

Model good self-care: set routines, eat healthy meals, get enough sleep, exercise and take big breaths to handle stress.

Allow your child to see your sadness over the tragic event but avoid intense displays of anger, which could be scary for young children. Accept their feelings, and tell them that it is okay to feel sad, scared or stressed out. Consider refocusing your child’s attention on the heroes who stepped in to help following the tragedy. You could write thank you notes together to the people who helped. Or you could help your child write caring letters to those who have been hurt.

Signs a Child Might Not Be Coping Well

If children don’t have a chance to practice healthy coping, a parent may see signs that they’re having difficulty adjusting. Some things to look for are:

  • Sleep problems: Watch for trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, difficulty waking or nightmares.
  • Physical complaints: Children may complain of feeling tired, having a headache or generally feeling unwell. You may notice your child eating too much or less than usual.
  • Changes in behavior: Look for signs of regressive behavior, including social regression, acting more immaturely or becoming less patient and more demanding. A child who once separated easily from his or her parents may become clingy. Teens may begin or change current patterns of tobacco, alcohol or substance abuse.
  • Emotional problems: Children may experience undue sadness, depression, anxiety or fears.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if a child is reacting in a typical way to an unusual event or whether they are having real problems coping – and might need extra support. If you are concerned, talk to your child’s pediatrician or counselor or mental health professional.

Don’t wait for the signs. Start the discussion early, and keep the lines of communication open. Be a good listener.

Dr. Kumar is a pediatrician with the Leicester Community Health Center.

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Kumar, call (828) 253-3717 or visit missionchildrens.org to find a pediatrician in your area.

*Source: American Academy of Pediatrics, 2016
*The information contained in this article should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your child’s pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.