Talking to Kids about Tragedy and Crises
Whenever a tragedy occurs, whether it may be an event of local or national significance, it can be confusing and frightening for children. The tips on this page are offered to help parents and school personnel talk to children about tragedy and crises.
Quick Tips for Talking about Crises
Adults of significance in our children's lives — particularly parents and school personnel — can help them cope by establishing a sense of safety and security and helping them work through their emotions by taking the following steps:
1. Model calm and control. Children take their emotional cues from the significant adults in their lives. Avoid appearing anxious or frightened.
2. Reassure children that they are safe. Depending on the situation, point out factors that help insure their immediate safety and that of their community.
3. Remind them that trustworthy people are in charge. Explain that emergency workers, police, firefighters, doctors and the military are helping people who are hurt and working to ensure that no further tragedies occur.
4. Let children know it is okay to feel upset. Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy like this occurs. Let children talk about their feelings and help put them into perspective. Even anger is okay, but children may need help and patience from adults to assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.
5. Observe children’s emotional state. Depending on their age, children may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite and sleep patterns can also indicate a child’s level of grief, anxiety or discomfort. Children will express their emotions differently. There is no right or wrong way to feel or express grief.
6. Look for children at greater risk. Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others. Be particularly observant for those who may be at risk of suicide. Seek the help of mental health professional if you are at all concerned.
7. Tell children the truth. Don’t try to pretend the event has not occurred or that it is not serious. Children are smart. They will be more worried if they think you are too afraid to tell them what is happening.
8. Stick to the facts. Don’t embellish or speculate about what has happened and what might happen. Don’t dwell on the scale or scope of the tragedy, particularly with young children.
9. Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate. Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that the daily structures of their lives will not change. Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence and threats to safety in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. They will be more committed to doing something to help the victims and affected community. For all children, encourage them to verbalize their thoughts and feelings. Be a good listener!
10. Monitor your own stress level. Don’t ignore your own feelings of anxiety, grief and anger. Talking to friends, family members, religious leaders and mental health counselors can help. It is okay to let your children know that you are sad, but that you believe things will get better. You will be better able to support your children if you can express your own emotions in a productive manner. Get appropriate sleep, nutrition and exercise.
General Parent and Teacher Resources
Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event - Resource made available by SAMSHA.
- Helping Youth and Children Recover from Traumatic Events - This page offers numerous resources from the U.S. Department of Education.
Symptoms of Stress in Children - This one-pager from the National Association of School Psychologists provides symptoms to look for, factors that alleviate stress and ways parents can help.
Ayudando a Niños(as) y Familias a Enfrentarse con el Trauma (Espanol) - This resource is from SAMHSA National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Crisis Management Institute - A list of free resources for educators and parents from the Crisis Management Institute
Helping Kids During Crisis - Tips from the American School Counselor Association
Disaster and Trauma Responses of Children - This one-pager from the American Counseling Association provides responses to watch for by age.
Managing Traumatic Stress - This article from the American Psychological Association provides tips for recovering from disasters and other traumatic events.
Disaster and Trauma Responses of Children - Trauma resources from the American Counseling Association