Q&A: Talking with kids about tragedy

My kids have been seeing and hearing a lot about the recent tragedies in our country and around the world, and they’ve been asking a lot of “Why?” I don’t want to say the wrong thing or tell them too much or too little. How do I answer their questions?

A:  I really do appreciate this question, and I'm sure many other parents can relate to your situation.  First, I want to point out how asking this question is a great first step to caring for your children because it shows your heart of love and concern, as well as your attentiveness to your children's needs.  


Our reality is such that children do hear and see and witness and learn so much about the world around them - the good, the bad, the scary and the confusing.  We do them a disservice to either minimize or amplify the reality of what they experience around them.  However, we do need to be very wise and thoughtful in how we respond to their questions.  I want to look at some different ways that we can care for and support our children in the midst of our world's tragedies and losses.  As you decide how you want to answer your child's questions, here are a few considerations:


Name and validate the emotion.  Children feel a wide range of emotions, yet they may not know how to name and express them.  In hearing their questions about crises or tragedies, you can help give language to their feelings.  "It's really confusing when these things happen and you want to know why."  "This feels scary and you want to know that you're safe."  "I know, I feel really angry too when awful things happen and people are hurt."


Share what is age-appropriate, not what is easy to say.  For younger kids, parents often want to cushion the hard truth of a situation.  However, this can lead to greater confusion down the road and it does not model how to have difficult conversations or deal with pain.  At the same time, you also want to monitor the amount and kind of information you share with children of different ages.  Consider these disclosures for younger children:  "There was a [name the tragedy] and some/many/a few people died.  A lot of other people were hurt, and so doctors and nurses and police are all trying to help."  "A man/woman/group of people did some very bad things- they hurt/killed/robbed/burned/destroyed/etc. and a lot of people are working together to make sure things like this don't happen again."

We do children a disservice to either minimize or amplify the reality of what they experience around them.

Emphasize values and safety.  Whenever disasters occur or tragedy strikes, I believe we all want to feel reassured that we are safe and prepared for whatever comes our way.  Remind your children of the ways you are protecting them, discuss what safety precautions to take in different situations, and reassure them that you see and hear their fears.  In addition, be clear about the values you have as a family:  "We believe that every person deserves to be treated the same, and no one is better than anyone else."  "It is not acceptable for anyone to act that way."  "Any person/church/group/teacher that says ___ is not right."  Your children are looking to you to guide them and make sense of a confusing and overwhelming world.  I'm not saying tell them what to think; I am encouraging you to develop their emotional intelligence, their moral compass and their innate sense of right and wrong.  They need you to do that. 


Focus on how you can respond.  I believe that families have incredible opportunities to invest in their communities and respond bravely in the face of crisis and loss.  Your children will develop a greater sense of resiliency, kindness and personal responsibility if you show them how to act for good in the face of fear and darkness.  You may want to try one of the following ideas:

  • Participate in a rescue/clean-up/relief effort
  • Find ways to honor those who died (say a prayer, set up a memorial, have moments of silence, etc.)
  • Create disaster preparedness kits together
  • Write and send letters of thanks and appreciation to first responders/relief workers
  • Give of your time, resources and energy- donate blood, provide meals for families in need, etc.
  • Serve at a homeless shelter or participate in some kind of service project

In the midst of grief and tragedy, our kids may be asking "Why?" but they are always looking to trusted adults to provide safety, comfort and reassurance.  Don't be intimidated by the questions; be with them and show them a way to respond.

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Alair Olson, M.A.

 Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist



South Mission Valley | San Diego, CA  92108

858.634.0302 | therapy@alairolson.com