In the midst of tragedy — or an event that causes great suffering and distress — parents have the difficult job of talking to their children about it.
While the topic should often be avoided with kids under 7 years of age who are too young to understand tragedy, it likely can’t be avoided with other ages. It’s impossible to ensure they don’t find out about it via their friends, the news, or other channels, and it’s often harmful to try and shield them from it. However, you should first assess your child’s emotional capacity before initiating this conversation.
Now, if you’re approaching this conversation with your child who 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. And if your child is in middle school or in their tweens (between the ages of 8 and 12), you should approach the conversation by asking what they know and listening to their feelings. Young children need to feel emotionally safe above all else, so make sure you convey that sense of love and security as you talk.
If your child is in their 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 the guidelines below:
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. You’ll want to maintain eye contact with your teen, a calm voice, and an open posture throughout the conversation. This’ll communicate comfort and safety. If instead, you approach this conversation with avoidant or guarded language (verbal and nonverbal), your teen will pick up on it and be less likely to open up in return. Kids often censor themselves because they don’t want to make their parents feel uncomfortable, not because they feel uncomfortable themselves.
2) Educate your teen on the nature of the tragedy.
Once you feel comfortable enough to tackle the topic, start by discussing the facts of the matter. “We have to put to words what happened and help answer our children’s questions,” says Tyler Keith, Licensed Clinical Social Worker at Thriveworks. Ask your teen what they know first — it’s important to understand the extent and accuracy of their knowledge or perspectives first. Then, use developmentally appropriate language to inform them of what has happened. You might reference factual news articles to offer the right details. Note: While you might feel tempted to hold back information, you should not be vague — teens will use their imagination to fill in the blanks on their own.
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. Use open-ended questions that truly allow them to express how they’re feeling, as opposed to questions that impose your own concerns. For example, say, “How are you feeling?” vs. “Are you feeling scared that this will happen to you?” Validate your teen’s feelings as they’re expressed and praise them for being open about them. Also, keep in mind that teens might experience different stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Support them throughout their unique grief process and the varying emotional states.
4) Work together to come up with a plan on how to stay safe.
If your teen does express concerns about their own safety, it can also help to talk about a safety plan. This can be similar to developing a plan for fire safety or stranger danger. Make sure you listen to their ideas about this plan so that they can also have ownership and further their feelings of safety as well as self-efficacy.
5) Teach them about appropriate conflict resolution.
This can also serve as the right time to discuss conflict resolution skills or, at the very least, plan for future conversations around these skills. It’s important for teens to understand how empathy, effective communication, and kindness can resolve problems — and that aggression and violence are never the answer. These conversations will provide your teens with a sense of hope plus agency in creating change. You might also introduce stories of heroic people in the world to reinforce the power of these skills.
6) Monitor your teen’s ongoing sense of safety and wellness.
And finally, it’s important that you monitor your teen’s well-being following the tragedy and keep communication open as well. Monitor their mood and activities. You’ll likely need to actively revisit the conversation around tragedy, too. In addition, be open to your teen bringing it up at any point in the future themselves. Invite them to ask questions about the difficult subject matter as they arise. And seek support in therapy for you, your child, or both, if you need it or feel you could benefit from it.
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