After the Boston Marathon Bombing, I was interviewed for an article about how to talk to kids about traumatic events. The article was published on the anniversary of 9/11 in Random House Kids, and I have reproduced it here for you.
How to Talk to Kids About Difficult Subjects
By Carla Fisher
Kids are likely to hear about upsetting and tragic things that happen, whether the anniversary of 9/11, conversation about Syria’s potential chemical attacks, or a death in the family. As much as want to shelter our children from bad news, we will inevitably be faced with moments where we need to talk about tragedy, be it a personal loss, such as the death of a loved one, or a national disaster that challenges our sense of safety and well-being. Here are guidelines and resources for how to talk with your children, including expert guidance from Tamar Gordon, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder and the treatment of anxiety in adults and children.
1. Take care of yourself
First, make sure you’re okay. Children look to caregivers for cues on how to act and respond. If you’re upset, be it angry, sad, or frustrated, they’ll reflect those emotions as well. You need to be in the best shape possible to help your child through difficult times.
In other words, Dr. Gordon says, you need to model to children that you can “express and discuss feelings, show feelings, and yet still cope with your life and follow a normal routine.” If you find that you, too, are challenged by the events, then it’s important to get treatment and enlist other caregivers to help you keep things as normal as possible for the kids.
2. Consider your child’s age before you say anything
It’s okay to simply shelter young children from bad news, but it’s not always an option, such as when a loved one dies. If you’re faced with discussing a national tragedy, consider whether your child needs to know anything at all.
The professionals will tell you to talk with children in a developmentally appropriate way, but Dr. Gordon recognizes that determining what’s “developmentally appropriate” is daunting for parents.
Instead, she recommends asking yourself questions such as, “Is my child aware of the fact that there are people who hurt other people in the world? Do they know what death is? Has a pet died? Or a loved one?”
Then use these answers to help frame and guide your discussion with the child. “This is not the time to expand a child’s knowledge of violence in the world,” she says.
3. Ask what they know to begin a discussion
When you discuss with a child, or when they ask you questions about a situation, it’s easiest to remember the words of Fred Rogers. When talking about tragic events, he recommended asking, “What do you think happened?” By asking what the child knows, you can determine how much more information the child actually needs to hear or whether he simply needs reassurance.
The goal, Dr. Gordon says, is to listen more than talk. Then answer the questions the child has. “Less is more,” she says. “You should answer the questions your child has without giving them extra details or telling them more than they’re asking.”
As kids get older, they may have questions about their own safety. Dr. Gordon says to listen to their concerns, reassure the child that you love them, and then emphasize all of the people in the world who will take care of the child, including parents and friends, as well as law enforcement. Reassure your child that while bad things happen, these situations are very rare. Finally, you can remind your child that he or she also has problem-solving skills for managing difficult situations, like knowing to call the police or knowing their own address and how to get home.
If your child shows a particular interest in the law enforcement and other first responders, you might consider writing thank-you cards or drawing pictures for local responders. When suggesting this to children, however, Dr. Gordon cautions parents to make sure that you’re not putting your own feelings onto the children. They may be perfectly fine as is, and suggesting writing notes for others could trigger more questions. Older children, however, she notes, may benefit from activities like this, where you want to teach civic responsibility and awareness skills.
4. Turn off news and social media
In times of national tragedy, the news is incredibly upsetting, especially television news with the frequent replays of events and upsetting footage of the aftermath of disasters. The fewer of these images a child sees, the better. (Frankly, the fewer any of us see, the better.) “Overexposure applies to adults as well as to kids,” Dr. Gordon warns.
Resist the overwhelming temptation to check in regularly with news media as well as social media. Put your child first and keep the media check-ins to the absolute minimum. “Pictures can traumatize you,” Dr. Gordon says. “It’s why movies can be so much scarier than books. It’s much harder to get a mental image out of your mind.”
In the rare exception where you need to monitor media for your own safety, find ways to minimize the amount of media the child is exposed to. If possible, Dr. Gordon suggests sticking to media that you need to read, rather than television. Limit when you check in with email or Twitter, and do so in another room, instead of in front of the child. Or take turns with another adult in the house monitoring media in another room.
A number of resources are available to parents and caregivers for assisting with difficult conversations.
Comforting Children in a Disaster from Sesame Workshop
Talking with Kids About News from PBS.org
Helping Children Cope with Frightening News from Child Mind Institute
Parenting in a Challenging World from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner