Talking with Children about Scary Events
Publications >May E-Newsletter> Talking with Children about Scary Events
Mary Lou Kelleher RN,
MS Vice President of Nursing / Chief Nurse
Franciscan Hospital for Children
As our city continues to recover from the tragic events that took place at the 2013 Boston Marathon finish line, it’s important that we consider the reactions of our kids and know how to talk with them about what happened. Mary Lou Kelleher, VP of Nursing for Franciscan takes us through six pointers on how to handle conversations about tragedies.
1. Understand that every child will react differently
"There's only one person in the whole world like you" Fred Rodgers (1998). Understand that every child will experience what happened differently and will process what they see or hear in their own unique way. Children experience death and frightening experiences differently than adults do, and young children have a limited understanding of death and/or injury. Some children may cry, some may seem callous, or you may be surprised to find that you're more upset than your child.
2. Be thoughtful, listen, and play the conversation by ear
You know your child best, it's up to you to judge how much or how little your child needs to be told, or if your child needs to know at all. The best suggestion for these types of incidents is to have a conversation with your child and really listen to what they are saying and not saying – how they act when you bring up the subject of the news.
3. Ask questions and keep it simple
Ask your child how they feel about it. Being able to share our feelings -- to say, "I'm sad" -- or "I'm scared" -- helps us know that others feel that way too and that our feelings are natural and normal. Reinforce that their feelings are okay and that they can share what they feel with you.
Start simply. You may want to say something like, "Do you have any questions about what happened?" or "Have you and your friends been talking about it?" Let them talk and tell you what they know and have seen or heard – then clarify the facts and add supportive information. Children will ask questions if you give them the opportunity and they will tell you if they want more information. As a parent, know that it's okay to say, "I don't know."
4. Reassure them that they are safe and loved
Keep these discussions short and maybe revisit the topic again the next day, but always reinforce that your child is safe and that you will always keep them safe. Some children may express disbelief or imagine “what if I had been there…”. Be reassuring; tell them how much you love them and how glad you are that they are safe and well. Let them know that you and the rest of their family members are safe - children will worry about the people they love.
5. Give them an opportunity to help
Let your child know what they can do to help the victims – whether it’s making a family donation to a fund of choice, saying a prayer or even drawing a picture to send to victims in the hospital. Children like to know they can do something to make people better – it gives them some control of the situation.
6. As a parent, be easy on yourself
While it’s important to remain calm in these situations, it's also okay to cry in front of children if you become sad when you are talking about a tragedy with them. It helps them know that it's okay for children and adults to cry, but also that we can deal with our feelings and smile again later on. Remember it is important to always help children know that feelings are natural and normal, and that happy times and sad times are part of everyone's life.
For your reference, the following resources may also be helpful:
Talking to Children after Tragedy, Boston Children’s Hospital
Tragic Events in the News, the Fred Rogers Company
How to Talk to Kids about Tragedies in the Media, Child Development Institute