How to Talk to Your Children About Tragedies and Other Bad News

By Alisha Bennett, LMSW

There has been no shortage of bad news over the last few months, particularly since the school year has started. From Las Vegas to Texas to nearby in Tribeca for us New Yorkers. And in recent weeks it seems like there have been more sexual assault charges and allegations making the news than ever before. The constant headlines with the 24 hour news cycle have been pretty overwhelming.  With our own difficulties as adults with this information, how do parents talk to children about tragedies and other bad news? 

My first response is to begin by simplifying what you know. Our younger children do not have the same repertoire of knowledge that we as adults do. Even if you told them every detail of every situation, they may be unable to process and understand it because they do not have the background knowledge, education, or experiences that we do. Sometimes our own anxiety about a tragedy can transfer to how we think that we should answer our children’s questions, but it does not have to be as complicated as it feels. Below are some quick tips for talking to your children.. For more detailed information, please see the guide from the Child Mind Institute (link may require an email address submission). 

  • Ensure safety for your children. Review all of the ways that they are safe and protected in their home and all of the different places you go. 
     
  • Validate any and all of their feelings, while reassuring safety, protection, and comfort from you as their caregivers.  
     
  • Stay calm when you have conversations with them, even if you as the adult are scared or anxious. They need to know that you are a source of comfort and protection and that they can come to you with anything that they need. 
     
  • Really try to listen to what they are saying and asking. As adults, we may make assumptions about their questions based on what we know. Don’t overwhelm them with information that they didn’t ask for or don't need to know. Use open ended questions if to get more information about what they’re actually asking. 
     
  • Limit how much your child is watching the news or has access to the news. As mentioned before, they don’t have the same capacity as adults do to understand this information which can make events even scarier for them. 
     
  • Take the opportunities to educate and inform your child, and support them in developing problem solving strategies and positive ways to cope. Ex: educate about safe and unsafe touch and what to do if they’re ever in a situation that involves unsafe touch.
     
  • Do not feel that you have to provide detailed answers to all of their questions. It’s okay to say that you don’t know why certain things happen. 
     
  • Assure them of how rare particular tragedies are and that they do not happen very often like in the case of mass shootings and terrorist attacks in the US.

Alisha Bennett is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy.  If you our your child are looking for support visit cobbpsychotherapy.com and learn how therapy can help.