Helping children cope with tragedy

Published on Friday, December 14, 2012

Coping with tragedyToday the world weeps for victims of gun violence in schools, this time in Newtown, CT.

As horrifying details continue to emerge from the elementary school shooting earlier today, those of us who work with children, or have children of our own, know that even as we struggle to process the news ourselves, we will also need to help explain to the children in our care what happened, as well as comfort those who are scared or upset by what they see and hear. has posted a useful blog called “Talking with Kids About News” that has helpful strategies for dealing with children’s questions, as well as the emotions they will feel.   It provides a step-by-step guide for parents, teachers and others.  It also links to other posts with communications strategies, as well as additional ideas on how to discuss the issue with children in an age-appropriate way.

The main body of the PBS post is below, but be sure to follow this link for the entire article.


  • Start by finding out what your child knows. When a news topic comes up, ask an open-ended question to find out what she knows like "What have you heard about it?" This encourages your child to let you know what she is thinking.
  • Ask a follow up question. Depending on your child's comments, ask another question to get him thinking, such as "Why do you think that happened?" or "What do you think people should do to help?"
  • Explain simply. Give children the information they need to know in a way that makes sense to them. At times, a few sentences are enough. "A good analogy is how you might talk about sex," adds Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed. D. "You obviously wouldn't explain everything to a 5-year-old. Talking about violence and safety is similar."
  • Listen and acknowledge. If a child talks about a news event (like a local robbery or kidnapping) and is worried,recognize her feeling and comfort her. You might say "I can see you're worried, but you are safe here. Remember how we always lock our doors." This acknowledges your child's feelings, helps her feel secure, and encourages her to tell you more.
  • Offer reassurance. When a child is exposed to disturbing news, she may worry about her safety. To help her calm down, offer specific examples that relate to her environment like, "That hurricane happened far away but we've never had a hurricane where we live." Actions speak louder than words — so show your child how you lock the door if she gets scared by a news report about robbers, point out the gutters and storm drains if a hurricane story causes fear, and explain what the security guards do at the airport after a story about terrorists.
  • Tailor your answer to your child's age. The amount of information children need changes age by age. "A kindergartner may feel reassured simply knowing a hurricane is thousands of miles away. An older child may want to know how hurricanes could affect the place where he lives and may want to know what is being done to help those in need. Both ages will be reassured by doing something to help," notes Jane Katch, M.S.T., author of Under Deadman's Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children's Violent Play.


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