How to talk to children when tragedy strikes
Aug 8, 2018
Sharon Freeman Clevenger, Indiana Center for CBT

While none of us wants to use this information, we need to know how to help kids cope if tragedy strikes unexpectedly.

  1. Ask. Kids don’t always have words that express how they feel and instead worry to try to make sense of what is happening. Begin by asking what they know or have heard. For example, “something happened at a school in Texas today and some kids were hurt. What have you heard?”
  2. Listen. Make sure you fully understand what the child believes and thinks. Young kids repeat the same questions over and over. That is how they process information. Many kids don’t understand that news repeats over and over and interpret this as multiple tragedies.
  3. Keep it simple. Respond with enough information to help, without overwhelming with too much information; or too little because that causes more worry.
  4. Reassure. Validate concerns – “I know this is scary.” Reassure them that “this” is uncommon/unusual. Don’t make promises you can’t keep like “it” won’t happen again. Instead, communicate that steps are being taken to learn from this to help make (school, homes) safer.
  5. Encourage. You can validate their emergency skills, like knowing who to talk to and how to dial 911.
  6. Teach. Help kids learn how to catch, check and change worry thoughts to fact-based thoughts and help them learn calming techniques like slow deep breaths.
  7. Check. Before talking with kids about hard topics, the adult must have their anxiety in check. 
  8. Positivity. Use the conversation as an opportunity to give kids a chance to talk about their worries, and to give you a chance to listen and support.
  9. When/Where/How. Reinforce basic safety skills such as safe adults (parents, police, teachers); “don’t talk to strangers,” how/when to dial 911.
  10. Watch. While it is normal for kids to think about upsetting information for a day or two, if anxiety lasts longer and includes problems with sleep, attention or other functioning, consider professional therapy.  

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