The Counselor's Corner: Talking to Your Kids About Tragedies

The Counselor's Corner: Talking to Your Kids About Tragedies

helpful ways we can speak life and light in dark times

8 minute read | September 12, 2019

We live in a world where tragedies occur on a regular basis. It is impossible to shield our children from pain and suffering, as well. It is crucial for parents to train their children in healthy ways to deal with tragedies. Here are some helpful ways to engage your children in this process:

  1. Initiate a conversation and LISTEN

Just because children aren’t talking about a tragedy doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about it.  They may sense your discomfort and not want to upset you by bringing it up, or they may be too overwhelmed by their own feelings to express them verbally. As a parent, try to initiate a conversation and listen to them without “correcting” their thoughts or “hijacking” the conversation with your own thoughts on the topic. You can use these open ended questions: 

  • “How do you feel about what’s happening in _______?”
  • “What are you or your friends thinking and talking about in terms of the situation?”
  • “Are you and your friends talking about what happened in ______? I’d be really interested in hearing about what you think. Let me know if you would like to talk.”

2. Validate their feelings and reassure them that you are here for them

Tragedy can shake our sense of safety as well as our child’s. One goal of this conversation is to provide them with the reassurance that you are here for them even when you do not have all the answers. You can state that you will be there for them, and tell them that they can ask you questions anytime. Some statements you might use:

  • “I see that you are feeling (insert emotion word). This sounds/seems really hard. Thank you for sharing with me how you’re feeling.”
  • “I am here for you, and I will do everything I can to keep you safe. You can always come and talk to me about anything.”

3. Allow your child/ren to ask questions, and listen calmly

Be a good listener and be mindful not to jump to any conclusions too quickly and/or minimize the feelings. Listen to what your child is saying, no matter how silly or illogical it might seem to you.

For example, if a child feels afraid when he/she sees certain images on TV, it might be better to say, “I understand why you’re scared...” instead of making them suppress the fear by dismissing it. 

  • “It sounds like you feel like _________.”
  • “I understand why you’re scared, but maybe ___________ (offer possible explanation or solution)” 

  • “That’s interesting, can you tell me more about that?”
  • “What do you mean by ___________?”
  • “How long have you been feeling _________?”

4. Respond genuinely and truthfully

You may not have the answers for all the questions your child may ask you — this is okay! Choose to talk genuinely and truthfully with your child. Make sure that your child does not feel like you are avoiding discussion on the topic. Brainstorm and discuss with your child about some possible solutions of things you can control. You can also encourage them to seek help if needed as well. 

  • “I don’t know the answer to that; I’m not sure anyone does. I do know, however, that many thoughtful and helpful people throughout the world are working hard to understand this issue and figure out how to help.”
  • “That’s an interesting question, and I don’t know the answer. How can we figure out the answer together?”

5. Limit media exposure

Even if they seem like they are not really watching or paying attention (i.e., playing with their toys), your child may still know that something controversial/shocking is happening in the background. As a parent, you should be mindful and cautious of what you say in front of your child. Beware not to use or bring up any violence-related language or information.

6.  Share your feelings

As parents, we always try to show our children the best of who we are, but we have a vulnerable side to us too. By sharing your feelings about the situation, you can help model the way you process difficult things whilst empowering your child to know that they are not alone in their struggle. 

  • “I understand that you’re feeling very upset about this…”
  • “Did you see how they have been helping one another even during times like this?”
  • Try not to treat this conversation like a competition to see who is sadder.

7. Be patient and loving

Children may express their needs emotionally or dramatically, especially when they are affected by what they have seen. They may not be able to explain why they are acting up or feeling frustrated. Instead of correcting them directly, try to have an extra dose of patience to soothe their emotions and meet their needs in a loving and calm way.

8. A variety of family activities in life leads to a better emotional foundation

Maintain (or build) a stable family life and routines to strengthen your child’s sense of security and normalcy. Spending more time together leads to better relationships, and that in turn helps your child open up to you. 

9. PRAY and view events from a biblical lens

The Bible is full of scriptures that describe God’s sacrificial love. Even in the midst of hardship, God is in control! His love is unconditional, and He calls us to love both our enemies and our neighbors! So pray as a family! Prayer is powerful — “look to the Lord and His strength; seek His face always” (1 Chronicles 16:11)

  • 1 Chronicles 16:34 - “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.”
  • Deuteronomy 7:9 - “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments.”
  • Jeremiah 31:3 - “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness”
  • Romans 8:35-39 - “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
  • 1 John 4:16-18 - “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
  • Zephaniah 3:17 -” The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” 
  • Psalm 91:4-6 - “He will cover you with his feathers,  and under his wings you will find refuge;his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. “
  • Proverbs 1:33 - “but whoever listens to me will live in safety  and be at ease, without fear of harm.”
  • Isaiah 41:10 - “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you;   I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
  • Lamentations 3:21-23 - “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
  • 1 Peter 5:7 - "Casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you."

Additional Resources:

Website: POPA Channel

HKU School of Public Health (2019).  HKUMed reports real-time population data on depression and suicidal ideation: a ten-year prospective cohort

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.) How can Parents Help their Children Deal with Community Violence? 

Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley (2015). Greater Good Magazine. Nine Tips for Talking to Kids about Trauma. 

Moreno, M. A. (2017). How to talk to your children about tragedies in the news (JAMA Pediatrics).

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