Look for the helpers: Talking with young children about tragedy

When disaster strikes, young children will have questions about what is happening and why. Take time to plan ahead and be prepared before you begin those tough discussions.

It is important to help children feel safe and secure in light of tragic events.
It is important to help children feel safe and secure in light of tragic events.

Fred Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers, you will always find people who are helping.’” As more tragic events unfold across the media, children will ask questions about the images they are seeing splashed across the television, internet and other news media outlets. As parents and caregivers begin to tackle those tough questions, it is important to begin the conversation by focusing on children’s safety in the world around them, rather than their fear of events that are unfolding. Following the iconic Roger’s advice and looking for the helpers, amidst the chaos is an excellent beginning point. Following are tips on how to talk about tragedy with children.

Turn off the news: While adult’s emotions may be running high, and the temptation is high to seek as much information as possible, these sensational media reports are not geared for children. The graphic images may be disturbing. Limit your children’s exposure to news of tragic events and be mindful of your conversations with other adults when you are in presence of small children.

Start with what they know: Ask your child what they may have heard about recent events. They may have heard bits and pieces of information, or nothing at all. Follow their lead, but avoid giving extraneous graphic or violent information. Emphasize that people are working hard to figure out what happened and to keep us safe. Listen carefully to their questions, and answer at a developmentally appropriate level.

A sample script of discussing the explosions at the Boston Marathon might be:

“A very sad thing happened in a city called Boston. People were running a race and an explosion happened near the end of the race. People were injured, and some died. The police, ambulances and other helpers came right away to help. The explosions are over, and people are safe now. This event has happened for over 100 years and nothing like this has ever happened before, this is very rare. Usually, events like this are very safe. The police work hard to keep big events like this safe for everyone that attends, just like they work hard to keep us safe at home.”

Focus on safety: Emphasize all of the people who work hard to keep us safe. It is the job of police, fire and other first responders, teachers, principals and even people like soccer coaches and babysitters to help us stay safe in many different ways. Help children identify the people in their lives that help keep them safe and who they might turn to if there was an emergency at school or at other locations that they frequent (grandma’s house, dance practice, etc.)

Make time for your children: Observe your children and be mindful of their emotional state. Be prepared for questions that might arise. Spend time connecting with your child and look for signals that they may be wanting to talk, such as lingering near you during chores. Staying engaged with your child will help them feel safer and will facilitate an open line of communication. Utilize children’s books to initiate conversations. eXtension.org offers a wide selection of “Story Stretcher” ideas to help build on themes in books and support their questions.

Be prepared for a range of emotions: Children may feel angry, scared, mad or sad. They may connect current events to past events that were sad or scary, perhaps other tragedies like the shooting in Newtown, CT, or events that were sad and scary to them, like getting into a car crash or losing a pet or loved one. Keep the focus on safety and security, while acknowledging their emotions: You felt really scared when we crashed our car last winter. The tow truck came to get the car, and daddy came to pick us up and take us home. We are all safe at home now.

Draw parallels where appropriate: The police and fire fighters came to help the runners at the race in Boston too, they were also scared, but now they are safe at home or at their hotels.

Think of your purpose: It can be tempting to want to provide children with a lot of information about the scary thing that happened, about their safety at home, about what to do if something bad happened to them, but as parents and caregivers, the purpose of discussing tragedy with children is about building their sense of safety and security and making sense of what is happening in the world around them. Avoid burdening children with excess information, frightening details or elaborate safety plans. Now is the time to support their emotional need to help them feel safe and help them understand the world around us, especially when it is scary and confusing to us as adults. Prior to opening the conversation, take time to seek a variety of resources to prepare yourself for how to approach these tough topics. Michigan State University Extension offers several additional articles on talking with children about tragedy as does PBS Kids.

Tragedy, natural disasters, terrorism and even smaller scale scary events are, sadly, a part of our children’s lives. Although your lives may not be directly impacted by events such as the explosions in Boston, it is important to be prepared to have these conversations with your children in the most supportive and developmentally appropriate way possible, to be prepared to help them learn to “look for the helpers” and feel safe and secure in their lives.

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