Talking with Children about Public Catastrophes

Kenneth Covelman, PhD

This post was written by Kenneth Covelman, Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Couple and Family Therapy at Jefferson College of Health Professions at Thomas Jefferson University.

In the age of mass media with social media and the 24 hour news cycle, our children are exposed to more and more upsetting information than ever before. After the horrific event that happened in Las Vegas, and the devastating natural disasters in recent months, many parents and child caretakers are struggling with the issue of how to talk to children about what they have heard. All of these incidents share commonalities involving major disruptions of people’s lives, loss of life and a sense of vulnerability. When children learn about these events, they naturally have questions about what they heard and saw on television or have read on the internet. They wonder about the likelihood of these events affecting them or their families; they wonder about the people affected and they try to make sense of what they are hearing and seeing. Therefore, it is likely that they will bring these questions to their parents. Parents then must grapple with decisions like, when it is appropriate to discuss with their children, how much should they tell them, and what is the best way to approach it so that the children will not be overwhelmed.

While there are no absolute right answers to how to go about this task, there are a few guidelines that might help steer parents and caretakers in the right direction when dealing with these difficult issues with children. So in the spirit of understanding that each child is different and each parent and/or caretaker must decide for themselves what they are comfortable with, here are a few guidelines culled from a variety of sources that might be useful in guiding difficult and important conversations (adapted from material first posted on the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) website after September 11, 2001).

  • Allow children to be the teachers about their experiences: Give children the opportunity to tell their story and be a good listener. Let them guide you about what they want to know. Follow their questions and don’t give them more information than they are seeking at the time.
  • Don’t assume that every child in a certain age group understands concepts like death or loss in the same way or with the same feelings: All children are different and their view of the world is unique and shaped by different experiences. Ask questions to make sure the child understands your explanations.
  • Don’t lie or tell half-truths to children about a tragic event: Children are often bright and sensitive. They will see through false information and wonder why you do not trust them with the truth. Lies do not help the child through the healing process or help develop effective coping strategies for life’s future tragedies or losses.
  • Help all children, regardless of age, to understand loss and death: Give the child information at the level that he/she can understand. Allow the child to guide adults as to the need for more information or clarification of the information presented. Loss and death are both part of the cycle of life that children need to understand.
  • Encourage children to ask questions about loss and death: Adults need to be less anxious about not knowing all the answers. Treat questions with respect and a willingness to help the child find his or her own answers.
  • Let children know that you really want to understand what they are feeling or what they need: Sometimes children are upset but they cannot tell you what will be helpful. Giving them the time and encouragement to share their feelings with you may enable them to sort out their feelings.
  • Be aware of your own needs and emotions: Focusing on the children in your care is important, but not at the expense of your emotional needs. Work through your own feelings about the events before talking to your kids. If necessary take time to talk to your co-parent or a friend to help with your feelings and to get support for yourself.
  • Realize that children are resilient and that by being hopeful and optimistic, parents can model resiliency and strength for their children even in the face of upsetting information and events. Therefore, it can be helpful to not only focus on the upsetting event itself, but also on what is being done to help make things better and improve the situation. Pointing to ways that people are helping by donating money, food, their time and skills give reasons to be hopeful. Also asking if there is anything the child would like to do to help can promote a sense of mastery and control.

While this list of guidelines is not meant to be exhaustive, we hope it will be useful to parents navigating this difficult terrain with their children.

Reference:

2003, National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East West Highway, Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814, 301-657-0270, www.nasponline.org

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