Talking to Kids About Our Nation's Tragedy

by Fred Zucconi

In the wake of our nation's tragedy, two important questions are on the minds of all parents:

  1. Should I talk to my children about what happened? And
  2. What should I tell my children about what happened?

The first answer is yes; do talk to your children because:

  • It's worse to keep feelings bottled up;
  • Not talking may create further fears and anxieties; and
  • Children are smart; they can sense a change in their parents' moods.

Children over the age of five are probably already aware of the concept of war. Trying to shield our children from reality may cause more harm than good. Your children will know if you are trying to keep a secret and that can be even more upsetting. Know that your children can tell that something is going on and it would be better that they hear it from you.

In answer to the second question, a lot depends on the age and maturity of your child. To answer this question, I have divided children into two age groups: those under the age of eight and those eight years of age or older. Here are some pointers:

  • Tell all children that they are safe and you will do what you can to keep them safe.
  • Tell all children that their loved ones are safe.
  • All children should be educated about media coverage:

    • News reports tell us about things that do not happen every day.
    • News reports are repetitive ("No it's not happening again; it's a rerun.").
    • News reports do not always talk about the good things that happen each day.

  • Don't give your opinions on events (not that your opinions are wrong, but they may have some bias that you may not readily see).
  • If you don't know the answer to a question, tell your children that you will try to find the answer.
  • If your child is under the age of eight, limit his or her television viewing as well as what you say about these events.
  • If your child is under the age of eight, pictures of destruction may be upsetting to your child.
  • If your child is under the age of eight, explain television images in simple, concrete terms:

    • "She's sad that her husband was hurt."
    • "He's afraid someone is trying to hurt him."
    • "That's happening far away from here."
    • "The building is falling down."

  • If your child is eight years of age or older, watch the news together and explain what you see.

    • Engage in conversation about political motives (especially with teens).
    • Look up the cities on a map.
    • Look up similar historical conflicts.
    • Discuss ways to resolve conflict.

  • Reassure all children that lots of people are helping.
  • Families should try to keep up as much of their daily routine as possible.

Some things you should watch for in your children:

  • Clinging too much, or fear of separation
  • Nightmares
  • Change in routines
  • Change in bedtime or change in appetite
  • Increased aggression or fighting
  • Complaints of headaches or stomachaches

Some change in behavior may be perfectly understandable and acceptable; I'm sure we have all experienced some changes in our behaviors in recent days. However, if any of the changes outlined above are present in your children, or you observe behaviors that you think are unusual or out of character, you may need professional assistance to understand the behavior and how to best respond.

Date published: 9/13/01
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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