Bigger Kids

Talking to your kids about tragedy

In the aftermath of scary news events, it's hard to know how honest you should be with your kids.

By John Hoffman
Talking to your kids about tragedy

Photo: Hillstreet Studios/Blend Images/Corbis

"Mom, did you know a man went into a school and shot 20 children?"

Leslie Dubois* was stunned when her then-eight-year-old son, Morgan, came out with this a few days after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, last December. She had done her best to make sure her kids didn’t hear about the incident. “I don’t generally have the news on when they’re around, and I don’t talk to my kids about things like that, so they did not hear about it at home,” says the Toronto mother of three kids, now ages six, nine and 12.

Morgan heard about the shooting at school after the principal asked for a minute of silence during morning announcements, and some kids in Morgan’s grade three class wanted to know why. Naturally, the teacher had to explain.

Dubois was alarmed, and, truth be told, a little ticked with the principal. But she focused on Morgan.

“I don’t remember exactly what I said,” Dubois says. “It was something like, ‘Wow, I’m sorry you had to hear about that. How do you feel about it?’” Morgan didn’t say very much, so the conversation was fairly short. “I explained that fewer people have guns here in Canada, and reminded him that the doors are always locked at his school,” says Dubois. “I told him to let me know if he ever wanted to talk about it.”

Brian Nichols, a play therapist in Peterborough, Ont., feels it’s best to minimize young children’s exposure to news coverage of disturbing events or tragedies, as Dubois tried to do. “Don’t give young children any more details than are absolutely necessary. Reassure them that this event happened a long way away, that they are safe, and that you and other adults are there to protect them.” Then redirect their attention. “Healthy children protect themselves from the impact of these sorts of events by playing and doing normal activities,” Nichols says.

He also agrees with Dubois’ approach of keeping the TV news turned off. “I have a particular concern about homes where the TV is on all the time. Children can be exposed to these events over and over again, which is not a good thing.”

Karen Lirenman, a grade one teacher at Bonaccord Elementary School in Surrey, BC, did not talk to her students about the Connecticut school shooting (at her principal’s request), but she did talk to them about Hurricane Sandy last October. “We were involved in a collaborative project with a class at a school in Manhattan and we had been exchanging emails with them,” says Lirenman. “We lost contact with them for 10 days after the hurricane. I had to explain why.”

Lirenman kept the discussion brief and was able to reassure her class that the New York children were all safe. She doesn’t remember it being a big deal for any of the kids. “At that age, they shift gears quickly and often,” Lirenman says.

But what if your child doesn’t shift gears? “If kids are bothered beyond what seems reasonable or normal, I would look for other underlying issues that are unresolved, such as an anxiety disorder or unresolved grief,” Nichols says. “Children who have suffered trauma may need to be watched more carefully, and may need more support or even outside help with the underlying issue.” Nichols suggests paying particular attention to how children seem around bedtime, when fears and anxieties can come to the forefront. “That’s often when children need extra reassurance — perhaps even for you to stay with them until they fall asleep so they feel loved and safe,” he says.

*Names have been changed

A version of this article appeared in our April 2013 issue with the headline "Talking about tragedy," p. 70.

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This article was originally published on Mar 26, 2013

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