After a tragedy, you might feel distraught and vulnerable—but your kids need your support and guidance. Here’s help for knowing what to say.
To say we live in a frightening world is an understatement. In just the past 12 months super-strength hurricanes pummeled homes in the Caribbean, Florida and Texas; monsoons and flooding caused untold numbers of deaths in Asia; drought and political conflict pushed the Horn of Africa to the brink of famine; and earthquakes ravaged Mexico and the Iran-Iraq border region.
During the same span of time, we’ve seen three of the deadliest mass killings in U.S. history—the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting; the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church massacre; and the mass slaying at an open-air concert in Las Vegas.
That’s on top of terrorist attacks, missile threats, rioting, grisly homicides, kidnappings, gang wars, armed robberies, sexual assaults and other violent acts that have become all too frequent in our daily newscasts. Just about any time we turn on the news or scroll through social media feeds, we’re barraged with one horrific news story after another.
The impact of tragedy on children and teens
As hard as these events are on adults, these kinds of tragedies can be far more difficult for children and teens to cope with and understand.
“After a traumatic news event, your kids might worry that it will happen again, that their own safety is in jeopardy, or that someone they love will be injured or killed,” observes Melissa Brymer, Ph.D., Psy.D., director of the Terrorism and Disaster Programs at the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress at UCLA.
Parents may wish they could just shield their kids from tragedies, but that’s hardly possible. “With so many media outlets today and a steady stream of news being reported to us 24/7 on our smartphones, escaping these kinds of big stories is highly unlikely,” states Scott Poland, Ed.D., a professor of psychology at Nova Southeastern University and an expert on crisis situations. “Your kids are going to find out about the tragedies, which means you need to be proactive in helping them process what happened.”
Addressing tragic events with your kids is also wise from a biblical perspective. The Bible tells us that “in the last days perilous times will come” (2 Timothy 3:1). We’re told that our world will become increasingly dangerous and unstable, right up until Christ’s return.
It goes without saying that parents have the responsibility of preparing their kids for adulthood. That should include teaching children, from the Bible, why there is so much trouble in the world, how to build resilience, and the importance of staying focused on God’s big picture. By helping kids face present-day tragedies, we’re also helping them learn how to cope with difficult times ahead.
What can parents do to help their kids feel secure and stay positive amid a steady stream of disaster-related news coverage? Here are six practical suggestions:
- Open up the dialogue.
When a major crisis is in the news, take the lead in talking about it with your kids; don’t wait for them to bring it up to you.
“Your kids are going to hear about it at school and from the media, and a lot of what they hear is going to be scary or even inaccurate,” Dr. Brymer says. “You need to check in with them so you can find out what they’ve heard, correct any misinformation or misconceptions they may have, and put their anxieties to rest.”
You could start by saying, “Something awful happened today. Have you heard anyone talking about it?” Let your kids share their concerns and perspectives, and listen carefully to what they have to say. Make sure you’re informed about the situation so you can help your kids understand what the facts are versus rumors. Ask them if they have any questions, and be honest with your answers, without going into gory or graphic details.
If they don’t have questions, that’s fine too. Not every child will want a full explanation.
Keep in mind, the closer the tragedy is to where you live, the more your children will need to talk about it.
- Tailor your conversation.
Talk with your kids about crisis situations in a manner that is appropriate for their age and maturity levels. “You don’t want to overwhelm children with too many details or information they can’t handle developmentally,” cautions Dr. Poland.
With preschoolers, he recommends only discussing tragedies with them if they’re aware of them. Elementary school-age children usually just want a brief explanation of what happened, along with reassurances that their daily lives won’t be affected. Middle and high school students usually want more detailed information about the incident, including what caused it and whether it could happen in their own area.
Personality differences also come into play. For instance, some 10-year-olds may be absolutely terrified of volcanoes and not want to talk about one that just erupted; other 10-year-olds may not be bothered at all and may even be intrigued by it.
“Take your cues from your children,” Dr. Poland says. “They’ll let you know if they want to hear more.”
- Model calmness.
It’s okay if your children see you sad or crying about something tragic in the news, but don’t let yourself become overly emotional or despondent. Remain calm. Your kids are learning how to deal with tragedy by observing how you react. If you seem troubled or panicky, they will pick up on your emotions and become fearful themselves.
“Children cope best when their parents are a source of strength for them,” Dr. Brymer says. “It’s not that parents need to put on a façade, but they need to be able to offer security to their children and answer their questions. If you’re struggling to keep it together, you won’t be able to do that.”
If something horrific just happened and you’re extremely upset about it, give yourself time to regain composure before you talk about the incident with your kids. Go to God in prayer and ask Him to give you courage, peace of mind and the words your children need to hear. Show by your example that you are looking to God for strength and putting your trust in Him. This is the outlook you want your kids to adopt.
- Pray together as a family.
Remind your children that while we see horrendous events all around us, God offers us His protection. We are never outside His care, and we don’t have to live in fear. In the aftermath of a disaster, kids often want to do something to make things better. One of the most constructive things anyone can do is to seek God’s involvement. Parents should take the lead in this by initiating family prayer time.
Together with your spouse and kids, ask God to provide for those who have been affected by the tragedy, to guide government leaders, to continue to keep your family safe, and to return Jesus Christ to this earth soon to establish His Kingdom (Matthew 6:10). Praying in this way teaches children they should respond to crises by turning to God, and it helps them focus on His big picture.
- Limit media exposure.
Staying informed about world events is certainly important. But that doesn’t mean we should let ourselves or our kids become immersed in the media hype surrounding a disaster. In general, you’re not going to hear a lot more new information during the second, third or fourth hour of TV coverage than you did during the first.
“Coverage of tragedy, especially if it is repeated and shows human suffering directly, can have negative effects on children and teens,” says Maryann Robinson, R.N., Ph.D., chief of the Emergency Mental Health and Traumatic Stress Services Branch at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Children who are very young may misunderstand repeated coverage and think that the event is actually happening again and again.”
She adds that TV news has become more sensational and graphic in recent years. Excessive viewing can heighten anxiety and fear in kids and adults alike.
Once you’ve learned the basics about what happened, it’s best to turn off the television and limit social media news feeds. Take a walk together as a family, ride bikes, visit the park, play a game, read the Bible—do something calming instead.
- Reassure them they’re in safe hands.
In any disaster situation, there will be policemen, firefighters, emergency medical personnel and other rescue workers on-site to help the survivors and restore order. Should a major tragedy happen in your community, point this out to your kids to help reassure them that safety measures are in place. Remind them too how incredibly important they are to you, that you love them and will always do your best to keep them safe.
Most important, remind your children that while we see horrendous events all around us, God offers us His protection. We are never outside His care, and we don’t have to live in fear. God is our ultimate shelter and refuge (Psalm 46:1; 91:4-5; 2 Thessalonians 3:3).
Of course, even when we are safe and protected, it is still incredibly heart-wrenching to see all the suffering, violence and destruction in the world around us. The only way to cope with this is to remember that God’s plan is moving forward, that He’s in control, and someday all the agony and tragedy will be a thing of the past.
These are important truths we can share with our kids that will give them true peace of mind and a positive outlook.