Has your child had a classmate who was impacted by a traumatic event like a car accident? Has your child ever asked you about something scary like a shooting? If so, you may have been faced with a conversation that was very difficult to navigate. You want to answer your child’s questions or have a conversation with them, but you don’t want to traumatize them.
It’s important to know how to speak to your children in a way that helps them process the event but not scare them. Although it’s never easy, I hope that these tips can help you with those tough conversations.
Ask questions. No matter the age, start by asking the child what they already know or have heard. Then ask what questions they have. This is especially important if they’ve had a friend or classmate that has recently had a traumatic experience as they may have heard a lot of different versions of the story already at school.
Keep it simple. In general, it is best to share basic information only and skip the graphic or unnecessary information. For example, if your child’s classmate was involved in an accident, you can confirm the basic details they have shared or you know. For example, “You’re right. Sally and her dad were in a car accident and she is staying in the hospital now because she was hurt.” But try to avoid any graphic details regarding the person’s injuries or viewing news stories that show images from the scene.
Avoid overexposure. Try to keep younger children away from repeated graphic images and stories on television and social media. Often, the same stories are shared numerous times on different broadcasts or sites, and while we can understand that it’s the same story told again, children can easily misinterpret these stories as separate and as happening more often than they actually are.
Watch what they watch. With older children, try to make sure you are watching these news stories with them so you hear the information they are hearing and can observe their reaction. This way, you can discuss it with them in real time, which can be more impactful.
Normalize their feelings. You can help your child process their feelings by letting them know that what they’re feeling is normal. For example, “It is normal to feel sad and worried, or maybe even a little mad that this has happened. I feel that way, too.”
Wrap up with the good. Like Mr. Rogers always said, “Look for the helpers.” Let the children know that there are people in our community helping — firefighters and EMTs who came as fast as they could to help and get them to the hospital, doctors and nurses who could help with their injuries, police and government officials who are working hard to make sure people are following laws to keep people safe, and families/friends/caregivers who are taking care of their loved ones.
Be patient and repeat if necessary. Children often ask questions over and over. Yes, they’re listening, but they need that repetition to understand and feel comforted.
As with any area of your child’s health, if you have concerns about these conversations or your child’s mental health, your pediatrician can help.
For more tips, check out the blog post Let’s talk: Talking to your child about tough topics and behavioral health.