Talking to Your Children About Tragedies

With the advent of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, children today are exposed to tragedies at alarming rates. Whether it be a tragic fire in your neighborhood, a shooting at a local movie theater or the death of a grandparent, knowing your child’s developmental stage and keeping the lines of communication open about these events is key.

That’s according to Abraham Bartell, M.D., Chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital. We spoke with Bartell to gain insights on how to best address these types of events with your children.

Take a Step Back

“People often get tripped up in defining tragedy and at the core it is [about] loss. Perceived loss or real loss is still loss,” notes Bartell. The loss of normalcy can really impact a child. For example, if a mother is diagnosed with cancer, that child may notice that their mother’s hair is falling out, the family’s routine is altered and the parents may not be as present. That loss of normalcy is going to be acutely felt by that child or their siblings.

“Young children think of tragedies in terms of cause and effect. They might think the tragedy is their fault and say things like ‘My friend’s house burnt down because I was mad at him’,” says Bartell. They also may be very fearful of the same tragedy happening to them. If they are old enough to understand, you can reassure them that it won’t and show them fire safety tools such as smoke detectors, fire extinguishers or escape ladders in your home. Older children may even benefit from a practice fire drill.

Addressing the Tragedy Truthfully

Bartell believes parents should be open, truthful and avoid euphemisms. It is also important to find out what your child knows about the event and then follow his lead. “Don’t see your child’s world through your eyes. Get a different set of eyes. Children don’t necessarily understand the meaning of tragedies because they don’t have life experience like adults.”

All too often parents will come to him, saying we don’t use the word “cancer”. Identifying the illness is important and minimizing the illness as a “boo-boo” or “bump” might cause the child to become distressed. They may think that they could die the next time they get hurt because when grandma had a “boo-boo” she passed away.

Bartell feels that protecting our children too much from tragedy results in inadequately prepared young adults. Tragedy needs to be framed in a context that children can understand and that context is influenced by the child’s age, developmental stage, culture and community.

Effective Communication is Key

Bartell suggests that parents bear the 4Fs in mind when discussing tragedies with their children.

1. Don’t Force it. Sometimes children won’t want to discuss a tragedy right away. They may want to process it first. Or some teens may be especially reluctant to discuss upsetting events with parents. If that’s the case, let them know that there are other trusted adults that can serve as resources (e.g. guidance counselors, school social workers, counselors or clergy).

2. Don’t Forbid talking or expressing feelings. Bartell notes that one of the biggest problems is that we live in a “don’t cry” society. Children are all too often told to not cry or let their emotions show when they are upset.

3. Follow their lead. Answer your children’s questions as best as you can and if you don’t have an answer suggest that you will find an answer together such as talking to a fire safety expert together or medical professional if coping with a family member or friend’s illness. In addition, parents should be cognizant of not overproviding information. Bartell also notes that parents should be wary of over interpreting behaviors and attributing every change in behavior as related to the distress. The amount of detail that you provide should vary based on the child’s age and cognitive abilities.

4. Control the Flow of information. If facing a tragedy, don’t wait until bedtime to start the discussion. Earlier in the day is better. Also be mindful of controlling the source of information as peers may weigh in on the tragedy or other community members who may have differing perspectives.

When to See a Professional

In the aftermath of a tragedy it is very normal for children to regress for a short period. Nightmares, changes in appetite or sleep disturbances are common but if it begins to impede your child’s daily functioning, seek professional help from a doctor, school psychologist or social worker.

Abraham Bartell, M.D., is the Chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital, a member of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network.

Stacey Pfeffer is a freelance writer and editor based in Chappaqua.