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How to Talk to Children About Tragic Events

When a tragic event happens, like a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, children may be troubled by what they see or hear about the tragedy. They may react with emotions such as fear, worry, shock and grief.

Children react to tragic events differently than adults. Some may react right away. Others may not show signs of having a tough time with the news until much later. In either case, don’t hesitate to talk to children to make sure they are OK.

Tips for Talking to Children

Here are some tips from the Mayo Clinic for talking to children about tragic events in the news.

  • Talk to kids to help them understand what happened. It will also help them feel safe.
  • Take time to think about what you want to say. Ask the child what they know about the tragedy. Ask them what questions or concerns they may have. The child's answers should help guide your talk.
  • Tell the truth. Focus on basic information. Don’t give out unnecessary details that may upset them.
  • Listen closely to children for incorrect information, along with fears and thoughts that are off-base. Share your thoughts and tell kids you're there for them.
  • Make sure children know that what happened isn't their fault.
  • Be careful not to focus on blame for the tragedy.
  • Get down to the child's eye level if you’re speaking to a preschool child. Speak in a calm, gentle voice. Use words the child will understand.
  • Elementary or early middle school children may wonder about their safety and ask questions about it. You may need to help separate fantasy from reality for them.
  • Children in upper middle school or high school will likely want more information. It’s OK to give them information, but don’t dwell on the details.

Tips for Parents on Coping With Tragedy

Consider these steps to help your child deal with a tragic event.

  • Try to stay calm. Children will look to their parents on how to react to the incident. It’s OK for your child to see you sad or crying. If you have an intense emotional reaction, consider leaving the room for a minute.
  • Make sure children know they are safe. Help them feel safe by creating a family safety plan for responding to a crisis. Give them lots of hugs.
  • Limit viewing of media reports. Don’t allow young children to see repeated coverage of a tragic event. That will increase their level of worry.
  • Stick with your normal dinner, bedtime and homework routine.
  • Spend extra time together. Special attention can help your child feel safe.
  • Make sure your child knows it’s OK to be upset or cry. Let them write about or draw what they’re feeling.
  • If your school offers counseling, consider meeting with a school counselor.
  • Think about ways you and your child can help victims of tragic events. For example, your child could set up a lemonade stand to raise money for victims.

What to Do if Symptoms Continue

Expect changes in behavior after a tragic event. A preschool child may cling to you or mimic your emotions. They may go back to sucking their thumb or wetting their bed. Children in elementary or early middle school might have nightmares or other sleep issues. They might fear going to school. Older kids might complain of aches and pains because they don’t really know what’s bothering them. Others might start arguments. These reactions are normal.

In some cases, children may have trouble getting past a tragic event. If a child continues to be affected for more than two to four weeks, they might need help to cope with the issue.

If you’re concerned, talk to your child’s doctor or a mental health professional. You can search for services in the kidcentral tn State Services Directory or call the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Helpline (800-560-5767).

Additional Resources

Learn how to help children cope with difficult times, such as the loss of a family member, divorce, or bullying.

Get more tips on how to talk to children after a disaster or traumatic event from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers tips on how to talk to children—including children with developmental delays or disabilities—about tragedies and other news events.

Learn more about risks and warning signs in children who may be at risk for having problems coping with a disaster.

See answers to questions children may have after a tragic event.