How should I talk to children about tragedy?

Hurricanes Irma & Jose, the earthquake in Mexico, the shooting in Las Vegas, the truck driver in New York, and the church shooting in Texas – many devastating tragedies have happened in the past few months. It is important to take care of yourself and think about how you feel. Without taking care of ourselves, we are unable to care for others. Also imperative is helping children and adolescents to cope and feel safe. Children, especially those below age 12, will look to their parents and teachers to determine how to react. See the tips below.

How should I explain a tragedy to a child or adolescent?

Be factual and to the point. Ask your son or daughter what she has heard about the event. Often, children hear misinformation from other children or misperceive information. After giving a brief explanation, ask your child if they have any questions. Guide your discussion around their questions. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know” if you don’t know.

More specifically, you can tailor the conversation according to your child’s age and developmental level:

  • Preschool-aged children: Sit down or kneel to be at your child’s eye level. Use as few words as possible and terms that your child understands. For example, in the event of a school shooting, you can say, “Someone went into a school and hurt some kids. This did not happen at your school. Your teachers keep you safe by keeping the doors locked, taking attendance, and doing lock-down drills.” Give your child extra hugs.
  • Elementary/early middle school: Answer your child’s questions about whether they are safe. Keep explanations succinct and concrete. Younger elementary aged children are still unable to think abstractly. Children in early middle school are beginning to develop abstract thinking.
  • Late middle school/high school: You can give a more detailed description of the event, the known facts, and why it may have occurred. Adolescents will have more abstract questions such as, “Why did this happen?”, or “What can I do to help?”

How can I help my child or adolescent cope with a tragedy?

We can teach and practice coping skills with our children. Some coping skills include deep breathing, counting to 10, positive self-talk, yoga or meditation (try – it’s free!), exercise, drawing, or writing about the event and/or their emotions.

Other ways to help them cope...

  1. Take A News Break. Adults can usually tolerate watching distressing events more than children can. Limit your children’s exposure to the media.
  2. Maintain a Regular Schedule. Don’t keep your children home from school or skip activities. Sticking to your schedule models strength and resiliency for your children during difficult times. Children also do well with structure, and activities keep them from thinking too much about the tragedy.
  3. Give Your Children Extra Nurturing and Attention. Extra hugs and quality time give children that security. Spend some extra time playing with them or reading with them.
  4. Show Confidence. Adults are children’s role models in times of stress. It is ok to show concern or distress, but if you are feeling anxious or crying often, be sure to reach out for help of your own.
  5. Focus on the Positive. Try to ask your children what the best part of their day was, and share yours. If you want, show your children how you can take action – by raising money, signing a petition, or sending a card or letter, for example.

Coming together as a community can be particularly healing after tragedies. Remember, we are all here for each other.


If you have any questions or comments about this article you can contact the author, Bri at

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