Tragedy strikes every day. While it may not be happening directly to us, breaking news and trending headlines can bring any given event a little too close to home, especially for young ones. Whether it’s a devastating earthquake destroying cities, a sudden shock like the tragic passing of NBA legend Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna, or protests against police violence one thing is very important for adults: Knowing how to talk to a child about tragedy.
“We watch [images of events] and it creates fear and reduces our empathy, which is why with today’s age, in a digital child, we can turn our TVs off, but they’re still watching it come in live on their cell phones,” Dr. Michele Borba, educational psychologist and author, tells Parentology.
Needless to say, adults can’t sit idly by. They must be prepared to have those difficult conversations.
What’s So Serious About the Impact?
Shootings, fires, pandemic deaths, crimes, the death of a beloved celebrity… Headlines are constantly blasted on televisions, newspapers, radios, even in conversations. There’s no ignoring them. And small children are aware when something scary is happening, which can escalate into feelings of trauma.
Borba uses 9/11 as an example of news coverage creating PTSD, especially for those not directly affected. 9/11 sparked a media storm and the videos of the planes hitting the towers were viral. For kids at home watching broadcast after broadcast use the same vivid image – it can appear as a new event every time, spiking up fear.
Then there are recurring traumas. For Californians, this often means the state’s seasonal fires. With the 2017 Tubbs Fire, 17-year-old youth climate activist Kate Roney became the victim she’d always empathized with through the screen. Despite years of being bombarded by news of California fires, Roney was still ill-equipped to deal with the emotional impact of a fire in her area and its far-reaching effects.
How Could We Help the Situation?
Kids are often left out of discussions surrounding important news. While the exclusion is often well-intended, it can actually be a bad parenting move. To assume a child or teen can’t handle a topic is cheating them out of the experience of understanding, and also setting them up for failure when they do encounter something traumatic.
Roney attributes kids being left out of conversations on topics like climate change — which led to the Tubbs fire — to adults thinking that young people can’t handle the information.
“I think there’s a difference with just having information, and knowing what to do with that information,” she says. “For kids, it’s knowing there’s a problem and wanting to fix it, which can be overwhelming and lead to shutting down.”
Borba advises parents to T.A.L.K:
- Talk to your kids about the subject
- Assess your child’s emotions
- Listen to and learn their fears
- Kindle their empathy.
She offers this reminder — kids’ sensitivity and empathy levels can vary greatly, even within the same household. A younger child may react to an event very differently than their older sibling.
Once parents take the time to get to the root of their child’s fears, they can help their child take action against them. For fears about natural disasters, ideas range from creating an emergency kit for a fire or an earthquake to gathering resources to help victims. For social/political issues, a discussion about root causes may be in order, such as talking to kids about race or racial bias.
Borba stresses, “If kids can put their fear into doing good, it can be the thing that reduces it.”
How to Talk to Your Child About Tragedy — Sources
Dr. Michele Borba, educational psychologist, and parenting, bullying and character expert. Author of Unselfie.
Kate Roney, co-director of Schools for Climate Action and director of Climate Action for the National Children’s Campaign