When disaster strikes—whether it be massive destruction caused by a hurricane or the senseless acts of an angry, distraught individual—parents have the difficult task of talking with their children about the tragic events.
While the topic should be avoided with young kids (specifically those under 8 years of age), who are much too young to hear about or understand said tragedy, it can’t be avoided with other ages—as it’s impossible to ensure they don’t find out about the news and often harmful to try and shield them from it.
If your child is in elementary school, you should first decide how much information you want to share and consider how you want your child to view the traumatic event, then take it from there. And if your child is in middle school or in their tweens, you should approach the conversation by asking what they know and listening to their feelings. But if your child is in the teens, it’s important to ready yourself for a heavier, lengthier conversation, as they will likely expect and demand more. During difficult times like our nation’s present, prepare yourself for discussing recent and future tragedies with your teens by following Dr. Kathy Wu’s guidelines below. Wu is a licensed psychologist who specializes in child and adolescent development and the treatment of posttraumatic stress in youth. She is also an assistant professor of psychology at Delaware Valley University.
1) Make sure you feel comfortable discussing the topic at hand.
First and foremost, you should make sure you feel comfortable talking about the subject matter before delving into it with your teen, as explained by Wu: “Parents/caregivers should themselves have a reasonably high degree of comfort talking about the subject matter. Generally speaking, parents should maintain good eye contact, a calm voice and tone, and open body posture when engaging in these discussions. If the parent presents with avoidance behaviors, appears guarded, or is ill at ease, the teen will sense it and will likely not be as willing or comfortable having an open dialogue with the parent on the difficult subject matter. Keep in mind that children often censor themselves not because they are uncomfortable, but because they don’t want to make their parents feel more uncomfortable.”
2) Educate your teen on the nature of the tragedy.
Once you feel comfortable enough to tackle this topic, start by discussing the facts of the matter. “Be honest about what you know and don’t know. Start by asking your teen about what they know about what’s happened. It is prudent that parents assess the degree of accuracy of their child’s knowledge/perspectives first,” Wu explains. “Then, parents are encouraged to use developmentally appropriate language to inform teens on what happened in an unbiased manner. Depending on the maturity of the child, parents may reference accurate/factual news articles or reports to provide a necessary amount of details about what happened. Do not be vague, as they will fill in the blanks with fear-saturated images on their own if left to use their imagination or own devices to develop a fuller narrative.”
3) Encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings on the subject matter.
After discussing the nature of the tragedy, encourage your teen to share how they feel about it. “Avoid statements that impose personal opinions or concerns about the difficult subject, such as, ‘Are you feeling scared that there will be a shooting at your school?’ Instead, use statements such as, ‘How are you feeling? Use as many open-ended questions as possible, validate the feelings expressed, and praise your teen for sharing their thoughts/feelings,” says Wu. “Note that teens learning about difficult news or tragedies might experience the normal stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance. Normalize their emotions and support them through these different emotional states.”
4) Work together to come up with a plan on how to stay safe.
It can also help to come up with a safety plan if your teen’s worried about their own safety, Wu explains: “For those who might have feelings of insecurity about their own safety during times of tragedy, come up with very concrete strategies to be safe with them. This can very well be similar to developing a fire safety or a stranger danger plan. Be sure to solicit their ideas about safety so that they can begin to have ownership, increased self-efficacy, and build their resilience. Individuals who feel helpless in times of crises are at increased risk of developing posttraumatic stress reactions.”
5) Teach them about appropriate conflict resolution.
Wu says this is also a good time to build on your teen’s conflict resolution skills: “It is important to educate teens on how empathy, good communication styles, compromise, and kindness are necessary to prevent future tragedies. This might be a good time for parents to talk to their children about ways in which they can help with conflict resolution and how they can do their part to be a force of good, not just resolving problems with aggression and violence. This will provide your children with a sense of hope and agency in affecting change. This would also be a good time to show them images or tell them stories of heroic people in the world. The images of brave youth rising up after the Florida Massacre to affect positive change in our world are powerful examples of how young people can help.”
6) Monitor your teen’s ongoing sense of safety and emotional wellness.
And finally, it’s important that you keep communication open as well as monitor your teens wellbeing following the tragedy. “Just because parents are done with the conversation on the difficult topic on a given day, it does not mean there is complete resolution for the children,” Wu explains. “Parents should actively revisit the conversation and be open to having this conversation at any point in the future. Invite teens to ask questions about the difficult subject matters as they arise. Also monitor the occurrence of nightmares and dramatic shift in mood. Seek therapeutic support if these problems persist.”