Driving my children to camp the other morning, we listened to the radio DJs talking about the mass shooting in Orlando. Since the normal light and airy tone was replaced by something much more somber, my 6- and 8-year-olds instantly knew that something was wrong.
When they asked me, I answered very matter-of-factly, just giving them the basics about what happened: There was a shooting at a club and 50 people are dead. It’s just horrible.
Did I give them enough information? Did I give them too much?
I turned to The Rev. Rick Forest, chaplain and bereavement care coordinator at Norton Children’s Hospital, and Bryan D. Carter, Ph.D., clinical pediatric psychologist at Norton Children’s Hospital and University of Louisville Physicians. They offered several tips for helping explain tragedies to children:
1. For younger children especially, find out what they already know. That way you know where they’re starting from. Answer questions honestly but without going into unnecessary detail or without providing answers to things they’re not asking. Give just the facts they need. An older child may need a little more because he or she asks more questions and may hear friends talking about the incident.
2. Provide reassurance. Security is often a child’s main concern, and your children may wonder if this awful thing can happen to them. Children may feel worried about going into public places or even back to school. Reassure your children that you also are focused on safety everywhere you go, even if it’s as simple as wearing a seat belt in the car. Explain that you don’t want to put anyone in the family in an unsafe situation.
3. It’s OK to feel sad and upset. Yes, something terrible happened and it’s OK to feel bad about it, and even a little worried.
4. Think about taking a break from the news, including social media. Adults can handle these horrible incidents much better than children, who tend to get carried away with their own imaginations.
5. Watch your own actions. Children take their cues on how to react by watching adults around them. If you’re calm with how you handle bad news and events, it’s reassuring to children and helps them learn how to cope.
6. For children who are extremely upset, be sure to maintain a normal schedule. Pay attention to and spend quality time with them, such as playing a board game or going to a playground.
7. Be available when questions come up. Often kids will ask one question and then change the subject. It might be that the answer upsets them or that they need time to process it. After they think about it a while, more questions may surface.
The most important thing is to be there for your children. They look to you for answers and support. If your child experiences extreme anxiety, talk to your pediatrician about resources that might help.
Here are additional tips on helping children with anxiety.