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Talking to Your Children about Tragedy


Opening up an age-appropriate dialogue with your children about a tragedy can be difficult, but it's necessary in order to help them process, cope and feel safe. What's the best way to talk to young people about tragedy or senseless acts of violence? Dr. Phil offers this advice:

  • Talk, talk talk. Reassure your child as to his or her safety and security. Find out your child's questions and answer them. If your child is going to get information, make sure he or she gets that information from you — in a familiar setting, in your own home, on your own couch. Make physical contact, hug him or her and put your hands on your child — make sure he or she feels safe.

  • When you talk about something scary, talk to your child in a normal voice. Don't use euphemisms. Tell him or her straight. But don't tell it in a whispery voice. That just makes it more scary.
  • If your child is under the age of 6, by all means protect him or her — limit exposure to media. There’s not much he or she can say about it, and it’s not a good thing to visit these images if he or she doesn't need to see them. The younger your children are, the more abstract you need to be in talking about what has happened, because they don't have an ability to understand the concept of death or the gravity of the situation. But if you have a child who is aware of this — a friend tells him or her on the playground, he or she sees it on the news or on the Internet — and he or she asks questions, you need to be honest, but you don't want to over-share. Answer questions without specifics, and don't go beyond the questions asked.

  • If your child is 8 to preteen, then answer his or her questions and let him or her know that this is an isolated event and that we, as a country, have the ability to step up security. It’s very important to talk to him or her about being watchful. What makes kids feel really worried and scared is if they feel like they’re helpless. Empower your child with a sense of participation — tell him or her to watch for packages that nobody is around, a bag left that nobody seems to be attending to, and not to approach it but to tell someone in authority. That gives children a sense of empowerment. They say, "Wow. I can be the eyes and ears and be helpful." Then they don’t feel like they’re just out there with nothing to do. It really helps and gives them a sense of participation.

  • If you have an older child, have an intelligent conversation where you can discuss what is in the news, help raise his or her awareness and again, enlist his or her aid in being watchful and able to help. Talk to him or her about what he or she has read, have an intelligent discussion and perhaps, you can suggest articles.
  • Conduct business as usual as far as school, life patterns and predictability.
  • Explain the isolated nature of the occurrence. You can tell your child that someone did a very bad thing, but it's over, and assure your child that he or she is safe.
  • Let your child know that telling is not tattling.
  • Be patient with individual reactions. Children process things internally, and this is a lot to wrap their head around. You're going to see sadness, anger, irritability and guilt. You'll find that sometimes, even kids feel guilty. You'll see a little bit of shock in the beginning. You may also see fatigue, stomachaches and headaches.

  • When there's violence involved, it's not unusual to see children regress a little bit. You might even see your child go back to behavior from a couple of years ago — he or she is just reaffirming that he or she is OK and that you're going to take care of him or her. But the more you get your child to talk, it's just cathartic, and he or she will snap out of it. If your child starts to withdraw and become isolated, consider contacting a professional.

  • The main thing you don’t want to do is let any of your children become obsessed with this and watch it over, and over and over.