Like many Canadians, I’ve been crushed to see how Hurricane Fiona wreaked havoc on the Maritimes. The sight of washed-out bridges, demolished homes and uprooted old trees has made me heartsick.
Kids are exposed to more and more news like this, which can be especially difficult for parents, as we struggle to explain what’s happening. You may find yourself constantly wondering, how much is too much information?
Your first instinct may be to try to protect them by diverting their attention or maybe even avoiding the question. But, when a kid asks a question, it’s always best to try and provide an age-appropriate answer. Otherwise, they may not see you as their “go-to person” when they have tough questions.
Here are some helpful strategies for parents:
1. Make time
When your child asks challenging questions, try to answer immediately or create a time to answer them as soon as possible.
2. Name it
It can be helpful to assign a name or label to the bad thing that has happened. This helps your kid make sense of what happened. In psychology, we call this strategy “name it to tame it.” By applying a label to the troublesome event or thought, the child can identify it and give it a proper place in their mind.
With Hurricane Fiona, it may be appropriate to define this event as a tragedy. You may want to explain that tragedies are when something very bad happens. Earthquakes, famines, hurricanes, wars, and car accidents are all examples of tragedies.
3. Recognize and acknowledge your child’s reaction
Your child may express fear, sadness, or other concerns about what has happened after you have given your explanation. Avoid minimizing these emotions with comments like “Oh don’t worry, we don’t have hurricanes here” or “Try not to think about it.” Hear your child, listen to their fears and take the opportunity to connect with them on an emotional level.
Here are some ways to respond to your child’s fears:
I understand how you feel. I feel the same way when I see things like that on the news.
The world can be a very confusing place. It is hard to accept that sometimes bad things happen in the world around us.
I don’t have all the answers, but you can always talk to me about things that are upsetting you, at any time.
4. Be honest, but also hopeful
Your child may be grappling with “why” tragedies happen. In cases like this, you might want to refer to one of my best-known quotes from, “On the News: Our First Talk About Tragedy”:
“No one knows for sure why tragedies occur. There could be many reasons why a particular tragedy occurred. Part of understanding tragedies is by accepting that most of the time we cannot control them. This is especially true for natural disasters. I have some of my own ideas about why very bad things happen from time to time. Perhaps tragedies happen to give people a chance to be strong. Perhaps tragedies happen to give people a chance to be brave. Perhaps tragedies happen to give people a chance to be kind and compassionate. Perhaps tragedies happen to bring people together.”
The key to explaining tragedy to young children is to be truthful, but end on a hopeful note. Give your child a hug to help reinforce that you can provide love, safety, and comfort to them. In the absence of the perfect answer, it’s always okay to say, “I love you, and you are safe.”
Dr. Jillian Roberts is a child psychologist and professor at the University of Victoria. She is the author of On the News: Our First Talk About Tragedy, which is available on