Talking to children about tragic events | December 19, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Schools - December 19, 2012

Talking to children about tragic events

by Barbara Wood

How does one talk with a child about an event as horrific as Friday's Connecticut school shooting?

The most important thing is to talk to your child, says Janet Childs, the director of critical incident stress management for the Centre for Living with Dying program of the Bill Wilson Center in San Jose and Santa Clara.

Children, even very young ones, will have heard about what happened. "Make time to sit down and address it," she says. "To think that we can protect them from it is, I believe, unrealistic."

"They do understand that a tragedy has happened and that adults are upset," she says.

Other experts warn, however, to not push a child to talk if they do not want to do so.

Children, Ms. Childs says, often worry that something that happened elsewhere could happen to them, so we need to let them know it will not happen often, or everywhere.

With small children, she says, keep the conversation simple and short. "It is beyond our comprehension. It's OK to tell the kids that," she says.

Next, she says, allow children to take some sort of action responding to what has happened, if they feel the need. "We can send our concern, our love and our energy," she says, perhaps in the form of a letter or a poster with their wishes and thoughts.

Ms. Childs says she hopes students can discuss the events at school. "It is very important for them to be able to talk about it," she says, and often children won't talk with parents.

Among resources available to parents who want to know more about recovering from a traumatic event are sites shared by Cynthia Shaw, regional communications director for the American Red Cross:

Visit to see "Tips for Talking to Children After a Traumatic Event," a publication of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Among the tips:

• Provide children with opportunities to talk about what they are seeing on television and to ask questions. Do not be afraid to admit that you cannot answer all of their questions.

• Answer questions at a level the child can understand.

• Provide ongoing opportunities for children to talk. They probably will have more questions as time goes on.

• Use this as an opportunity to establish a family emergency plan. Feeling that there is something you can do may be comforting to both children and adults.

Visit to see an Almanac story online with links to more resources at the bottom.


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