Family

Talking to Your Kids About Tragedy: What to Say (or Not)

Moms and dads have a unique role to play in sharing information both good and bad — here are smart insights for parents

The world has not yet gotten over the devastating news from Las Vegas, Nevada. On Sunday, October 1, a man opened fire on the crowds gathered at the Route 91 Harvest Festival. Nearly 60 people people were killed, and over 500 were wounded. The man was identified as Stephen Paddock of Mesquite, Nevada. It is still unclear what his motive was ,and an investigation is ongoing.

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As the faces of those killed in Las Vegas are shared on the news and social media, parents face the difficult task of explaining this reality to their children.

As parents, we want to protect our children from cruelty and evil in the world. Parents may think that not talking about tragic events will help their children maintain a feeling of safety and security. But avoiding talking about events can set a child up for misunderstanding and feelings of chaos. Not only are they at risk to get misinformation, but they are most likely unequipped to fully interpret their own reaction to facts that they hear.

A parent’s silence also sends a message to children. A child can interpret this lack of acknowledgment of significant world events as an unwillingness to share feelings. This can cause the child to grow up keeping their feelings to themselves in an unhealthy way.

Today, children are exposed to media coverage of events at every turn, from the grocery store to the car wash. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children younger than 18 months old not be allowed screen time outside of video calls. But with the prevalence of news coverage at every turn, it is unrealistic to think that even young children will not see the images of those impacted by the tragedy.

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The Mayo Clinic, a leading authority in medical research and care, recommends “taking time to think about what you want to say.” This can be a difficult conversation for parents to initiate; having a plan will make it easier to get started.

But with the prevalence of news coverage at every turn, it is unrealistic to think that even young children will not see the images of those impacted by the tragedy.

For younger children, the Mayo Clinic advises parents to “speak in a calm and gentle voice using words your child understands.” Young children may not fully understand what is being reported in the news media or what they are hearing. The images that they see, however, are more relatable and immediate. Parents should take the time to interpret these things for young children.

Elementary school-aged children may have more questions about what they are hearing and seeing. They may even hear incorrect interpretations from friends or classmates. The Mayo Clinic recommends that parents tell the truth for all age groups, but it can be difficult for young children asking questions.

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Experts at Psychology Today caution parents against oversharing with children. Consider the temperament of your child and watch for his or her reaction when sharing facts. While parents should tell their children the truth, they should only share as much as children can handle, even if this means omitting details of the event.

This is also true of media exposure. Parents should be aware of the impact the constant newsfeed can have on their child. Even young children are aware of media in the background. Parents should be aware of news coverage playing even if children are not actively watching.

Not only will older kids see the coverage via their social media networks, but they’ll also be exposed to the reactions of friends and acquaintances.

Younger children are beginning to understand the impact that tragic events may have on their own safety. It is important that parents explain ways that their children are protected and safe. Point out the action taken by first responders as well as ordinary citizens to support those directly impacted by tragic events.

Older children may develop their own opinions about tragic events. Parents have the responsibility to both validate their children’s right to independent thoughts and ideas, as well as provide additional insight to help them form informed opinions. Parents should be prepared for their child’s opinion to differ from their own. In particular, older children may develop strong opinions about what should be done to respond to tragedy.

Social media also plays a role in the lives of older children. Not only will older kids see the coverage via their social media networks, but they will also be exposed to the reactions of their friends and acquaintances. This can make it particularly confusing for kids to figure out the facts. Parents should help them understand the facts of tragic events and be ready to answer more complicated questions.

Point out the action taken by first responders as well as ordinary citizens to support those directly impacted by tragic events.

Related: How to Talk to Your Kids About Mass Shootings

Parents should be particularly sensitive to their child’s behavior following a tragic event, even if they do not think that their child was affected. Oftentimes, a change in behavior is the child’s way of communicating that they are not okay or do not understand something in their life. This is especially true for young children who may lack the vocabulary to explain their feelings.

For all age groups, parents should consider engaging children in volunteer efforts to help those impacted by tragedy. This can be both an empowering and eye-opening experience for children of all ages. It can help young children understand tragedy as it relates to their own reality. It can provide older children and teens with the opportunity to take action.

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A parent’s role is to help his or her child understand this media-laden world. Unfortunately, that includes understanding tragic events, whether they be natural or human-initiated disasters. As news coverage continues and facts emerge about the shooting in Las Vegas, parents need to be prepared to respond to the needs of their children. After all, it is a parent’s role to guide children to a place of understanding and emotional security.

Katie Begley is an OpsLens contributor, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and a former Surface Warfare Officer. In addition to being a military spouse, she is a freelance writer specializing in travel, education, and parenting subjects. This piece originally appeared in OpsLens. 

Read more at OpsLens:
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The opinions expressed by contributors and/or content partners are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of LifeZette.

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