How to Talk to Kids About Tragedy

How to Talk to Kids About Tragedy


We didn’t need another reminder of how hard it is to talk with kids about tragedy. But this week we once again saw senseless devastation at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. These events are shocking and close to home for kids. How do we explain these kinds of unthinkable circumstances to our little ones? What will we tell them when we don't quite know what to tell ourselves?


There was a time when kids might not learn about gut wrenching realities like this, but in our hyper connected world, kids are likely to learn about them one way or another. Having a parent, teacher, or guardian be the one to share and explain is important. 


Think of it like a fall: kids need a soft space to land in order to be able to wrestle with tragedy themselves. Learning about these things on social media or TV alone may create more confusion, anger, or distancing as a natural reaction without family or trusted adults to help guide.


But that doesn’t make the process easy. Here we have a few simple but powerful steps to help when things fall apart.



Begin By Asking

Kids absorb so much more than we often realize. Their rapidly growing minds are constantly learning, developing, and adapting with the inputs around them. In the face of a scary or traumatic event, adults likely have one of two reactions: avoid saying anything or jump straight to telling and reassuring. But a critical first step is to simply listen.


Ask them what they already know, how they feel, and be ready to validate those feelings. Listening to what they already understand and their concerns will help you to better know how to approach difficult topics with each unique child. It also goes so far in helping kids build a sense of self in the midst of uncertainty.


According to a fascinating 2019 study, kids with a kind, listening ear for support are much better equipped to navigate challenges and trauma. As reported by US News, "Having even one parent lend a kind and caring ear appears to help kids work past the toxic stress caused by those events, resulting in better performance at school, according to the study."


Anxious Child with Dad


Commit to Honesty

This is the hardest part, but maybe the most important. When the world is reeling it can be tempting to ignore, minimize or simply obscure the truth from kids. But being honest is essential to building trust. “Teaching your child about the importance of trust in relationships can have a profound effect on the way they see the world,” said Michele Balani on TODAY, “and can help build a strong base of trust that is crucial for their social and emotional development.”


But how much should you share and when is it important to protect kids from certain information? Here are some practical reminders to finding the right balance:


  • > Share in steps: Consider sharing truth in chunks or small conversations. Kids need honesty, but sometimes all at once can be too much.
  • > Consider context: If a child is closely impacted by the circumstances or has personally experienced trauma it's important to be gentle with sharing.
  • > Answer authentically: Be ready to engage in a conversation and encourage questions to help kids process. Don't be afraid to simply say "this is hard…I just don't know."
  • > Affirm points of security: Kids need stability and security. But when the world seems upside down, that's hard. Don't be untruthful, yet look for opportunities to highlight safety in little ways, for example "It's ok, I'm here with you," or "you're safe here in our home."



Be Patient with Pain

When it comes to pain and trauma, kids aren't so different from any of us adults. We all need time, space, community, and ongoing conversation to process unspeakably hard things.


"We need to be patient," explained Melissa Brymer, director of UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, in a conversation with NPR. "Sometimes especially young kids need to have these conversations over and over."


If the conversation escalates or you sense a child growing especially upset, make sure they know that's ok to feel and create space for them to ask more questions and talk later.



Keep Routines

In the face of scary or traumatic news, consistency becomes even more important for kids.


Wherever possible, work to keep routines consistent to help kids hold on to a sense of security while processing difficult things. For example:

  • > Bedtimes
  • > Mealtimes
  • > Household rules
  • > Chores
  • > Homework


This consistency of routine doesn't mean pretending like everything is fine or nothing is wrong. But it does mean creating a stable environment where hard things can be handled and processed together.



Limit Unhelpful Inputs

It's never been harder to regulate what kids hear and see. At times when fresh news is breaking or volatile events are unfolding, it's important to both stay informed yet also understand that some inputs may do more harm than good.


Consider trying these simple steps as a starting point for yourself as well as kids:

  • > Encourage and model less media or screen time overall
  • > Be selective about helpful, trustworthy media sources
  • > Reduce or eliminate time on social media for a period
  • > Process as a family or trusted unit


Remember, ultimately we can't completely shelter kids from painful circumstances. But we can work to equip and prepare them as they grow. We know one thing: it's never going to be easy, no matter the age. We can only strive to build the tools to grieve, process, and find perspective well.