A young teen, overwhelmed by news of a tragedy, is comforted by her parent


How to talk to your children about tragedies in the media

Parents and children learning about the bombing at a recent concert in Manchester, England, may find the violence especially troubling since the terror attack targeted a venue full of children. Many young people likely heard about this attack through social media and have formed opinions, impressions and questions. This can leave parents and other adults struggling with what to say and share amid the frightening news. 

Here are a few tips to get the conversation started:

Start the talk
With the exception of very young (i.e. preschool-aged) children, I recommend that you talk to your child first, before she or he has the opportunity to hear incorrect information from peers or other sources. It's often helpful to start the conversation while you're involved in an activity. This will decrease the intensity of the conversation and help your child to feel more comfortable. You can start by asking what they have already heard, then focus on correcting misinformation and addressing your child's concerns.  Asking, "What questions do you have?" rather than, "Do you have any questions?" is a great way to prompt further discussion. Answer questions as best as you can, but don't be afraid to acknowledge that you may not have all the answers. 

Provide developmentally appropriate information
A general rule of thumb is to follow the "who, what, when, where, why and how" format, providing more general information to younger children and more specific information to older children. An example of a general piece of information that you could give to a very young child is, "some people did mean things in a place that's far away from us and some people got hurt." Young children may struggle with understanding distance and how it impacts the relevance to them, so give examples such as, "You would have to take a plane to get there" or "all the way across the ocean."

Focus on safety
As much as possible, focus on recovery efforts and the positive ways the community is banding together to help those most in need. Allowing your child to contribute to the recovery effort can be a source of empowerment and comfort. With very young children, remind them that they have parents and teachers, etc. to keep them safe, and that they do not have to worry about bad things happening to them. Older children and teenagers are unlikely to believe you if you tell them that nothing bad will happen to them, so it can be helpful to talk instead about the rarity of these tragic occurrences and to take the opportunity to discuss safety in general. Review any safety plans in place and talk to your child about what they would, or who they would contact, in the event of an emergency.

Help them process and allow them to react 
Limit exposure to the tragedy as much as possible, whether it be exposure through the media or by listening to adult conversations—the younger the child, the less information to which they should be exposed. Help your child to identify their emotional reactions and normalize your child's feelings. Although you want to remain calm throughout the conversation, it is okay to share your own emotions about the situation in a developmentally appropriate manner. 

Everybody processes information and emotions differently. Some children or teens may become clingier—they may want to spend more time with you, seek reassurance by asking questions, or become more physically affectionate. Others will become more defiant or want to spend more time with friends. If you see significant behavioral changes that last longer than expected and impact your child's functioning, it may be helpful to talk to a professional counselor.


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