Talking with Children About Disaster

Sometimes the news is just heartbreaking: senseless violence, deliberate cruelty, lives lost, families devastated…

For families directly affected by a tragedy, finding ways to move forward takes enormous strength and courage. But even those not directly affected can have their sense of safety and their faith in a just world deeply shaken by tragic news events.

A plane crash, a terrorist attack, an accident, an epidemic, or a natural disaster… Events that cause widespread suffering leave us with the aching question, “How could such a thing happen?!”, and they make us want to hold our children tighter.

When we adults feel baffled, frightened, and gut-churningly sad about tragic news events, how can we make sense of them for our children?

How children understand death at different ages

Our explanations need to match our children’s developmental level. Children understand death in different ways at different ages. Three- and four-year olds see death as temporary and not personally relevant. Young grade school children understand that death is permanent but don’t believe they will die. They may find symbols of death frightening. Around age nine, children grasp that they too will die someday. Some respond by being extra cautious, while others become daredevils. Teens are capable of abstract reasoning and may enjoy philosophical discussions about life and death, good and evil, but if tragedy strikes too close to home, they may revert to more concrete ways of thinking.

Talking with children about disaster

Here are some things you may want to keep in mind when talking to your child about tragic news events:

– Start wherever your child is. Children may misunderstand adult conversations or get inaccurate information from peers. Hearing about a disaster repeatedly may make young children think it’s happening again and again. Ask your child, “What have you heard?” This may give you the opportunity to clarify or reassure. For instance, you may need to explain that the tragedy happened far away or that it’s a very rare event.

With young children, especially, keep your explanations short and factual. Emphasize that they are safe. Don’t be surprised if you see drawings or imaginative play about the tragedy. That’s children’s way of controlling and making sense of their experiences. These activities can present opportunities to talk with your child. On the other hand, you may see nothing if your child doesn’t view the event as personally relevant.

Follow your child’s lead about how much to talk about the disaster. If your child doesn’t want to talk about it, that’s fine. You don’t have to push it.

– Be careful what you let your child see. Whenever there’s a disaster, there’s always nonstop media coverage as facts about the event unfold. It’s probably impossible to prevent all but the youngest of children from hearing the news, but use your judgment about how much and what kind of information your child can handle.

Consider both content and immediacy. Immediacy means how “in your face” information is. Hearing a trusted adult calmly say that a disaster happened is less immediate than reading a detailed description of the tragedy, which is less immediate than seeing photos of the adults or children who died, which is less immediate than seeing video footage of a grieving mother sobbing as she talks about her dead child. Most children could tolerate hearing about the disaster, even though it’s frightening, but few could tolerate the video footage, nor is there any benefit in exposing them to such vivid information.

– Take care of yourself. Children are magnets for emotion, so they’re likely to pick up on adults’ fear, sadness, horror, and anger about this event, even if they don’t fully understand what’s going on. In order to be able to take care of your child, you need to take care of yourself. Reach out to a friend, family member, or spouse for comfort. Watch your own level of media exposure. Get enough exercise, rest, and healthy food. And if you find yourself acting irritable or tense, reassure your children that they’re not the cause.

– Keep things stable and predictable at home. Routines are comforting to children. While it might be tempting to keep your children constantly by your side in the aftermath of a tragedy, it sends them an important message about your confidence in their safety if you allow them to continue their normal routine about school or daycare, meals, baths, and bedtime. Of course, some extra hugs won’t hurt.

– Find child-size ways to take action. Most of us feel better when we can do something about a problem. If your child seems preoccupied with the disaster, you might want to help your child come up with some way to take action. This could involve saying a prayer together, sending a card or letter, signing a petition, raising money for an appropriate charity, or even just spending extra time with loved ones.

– Talk about values. When tragedy strikes, it can derail us, but it’s also a call to be our best selves. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate and talk about our deepest values with our children, especially courage and compassion.

Related post:

Helping Children Feel Safe in an Unsafe World

© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD.