700 Children's® – A Blog by Pediatric Experts

How to Talk to Your Kids About Tragedy

Jun 14, 2016

News of natural disasters, mass shootings, bombs and politics is enough to frighten adults, but children may feel even more shaken. When tragedy struck at Sandy Hook, my kids were little – one was a toddler and the other two were still in preschool. I texted their teacher to say that I wanted them to hear it from me, if they were going to hear about it at all. Thankfully, the teacher said they weren’t going to discuss it. They were too young and didn’t need to know about the senseless acts of violence to children, because there was no way they would understand – none of us did.

Imagine my surprise as we were driving down the street and my oldest asked “Mommy, why are the flags at half-mast?” I hadn’t thought about how I would discuss it. I had already decided we weren’t going to tell the kids, and I certainly wasn’t going to talk about it with his younger brothers in the car.

So I lied, “I don’t know.” Not my shining moment as a parent, but at that point I wasn’t prepared. It’s not easy to talk about tragedy, but here are some tips that might help you navigate these discussions with your own children.

For young children:

  • Don’t have the news on when your children are around. Following tragedies, the media often plays and replays graphic video. The morning news on the radio or on TV is often filled with violent stories of tragedies, violence and suffering. Kids pick up more than we think, so it is a good idea to leave the news off around little ears.
  • If your child brings up an event, ask what they heard. This gives you a chance to get their frame of reference, find out what they know, and correct misinformation.
  • Answer their questions. Children might be hearing things about events; some true, some not. Provide accurate information, but keep it simple and don’t elaborate on the disturbing details.
  • Tell the truth (I know, I failed at this the first time around) and provide reassurance. It is normal for children to feel scared or unsure during these times. Reassure them that you and the community are working hard to keep them safe.

For older children:

  • Older children and teens are more likely to have constant access to the news with social media and smart phones. They will likely want to know more details and have more questions.
  • It is okay to say you don’t know something if you don’t. Often new stories are still developing and all the details are not known. Instead of extrapolating or theorizing, stick to what is known.

It breaks my heart that we have to keep having these conversations, but I have to believe that reassuring our kids and pointing out examples of love and kindness around them will overshadow the hate and violence.

You can find additional tips for talking to your children about tragedies, here

Featured Expert

Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Sarah A. Denny, MD
Emergency Medicine

Sarah Denny, MD, FAAP, works as an attending physician in the Section of Emergency Medicine at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and as an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

All Topics

Browse by Author

Join On Our Sleeves

Sign up for behavioral health resources and information, advocacy opportunities and more.

Join the movement for children's mental health.

About this Blog

Pediatric News You Can Use From America’s Largest Pediatric Hospital and Research Center

700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.