By Liz Ener
The events in Pittsburgh on Saturday left many parents and caregivers wondering how to talk with children about the news. When children see or hear news that is particularly troubling or scary to them, they often look to their parents or caregivers for answers and safety.
As we try to grasp the realities of this communal mass tragedy ourselves, children may have a lot of questions about whether something like this could happen to them. In fact, parents themselves may have a lot of worries about their family and children’s safety, especially since the shooting occurred in a synagogue.
While experiencing increased anxiety after such a public, targeted devastating event is normal for both adults and children, there are supports that children and parents might find helpful in minimizing their stress and maintaining a sense of normalcy. The key here is to reassure children and answer their questions without causing information overload; take caution and be sure to save the in-depth conversations for grown-up company.
It is important to be honest, keep in mind a child’s age and ensure your explanations are appropriate for the child’s level of understanding.
A basic fundamental element in children’s sense of safety is consistency; if children can predict and/or know what will happen, they will feel safer. As such, it is important for families to continue with their regular routine. Because children often struggle with putting their feelings into words, parents and caregivers can also help children talk about what they feel and help them name their emotions.
Below are some additional tips for navigating these challenging conversations with children and adolescents (Bratton, Landreth, Kellam, & Blackard, 2006; Faber & King, 2017; NCTSN)
• Start by finding out what children know. Ask an open-ended question to find out what your children know, like “What have you heard about it?” or “What do you think about it?” This encourages children to let you know what they already know and are thinking.
• Listen, acknowledge, and name feelings. As children talk about this tragedy and demonstrate increased emotions such as worry or anger, recognize their feelings and comfort them. You might say “I can see you’re worried, but you are safe here.” This acknowledges children’s feelings, helps them feel safe and secure, and encourages further conversation.
• Allow children space to work out their feelings. Children may do this through play, such as with Legos or with dolls, or they may engage in arts and crafts.
• Explain simply; do not overload children with information; tailor your answer to your child’s age. Give children the information they need to know in a way that makes sense to them. A good way to manage this is to answer only the questions they ask.
• Take a break from news coverage. While you may find it difficult to walk away from the news, children and adolescents may not be able to handle repeated exposures to such content. Parents should consider limiting the amount of time spent watching news reports of this tragedy.
• Communicate assurance. Children look to caregivers during times of stress to gauge their sense of safety; they observe caregivers’ reactions and will pick up on their anxiety, which can be contagious. As such, caregivers should seek to model healthy coping strategies/emotional management. If caregivers find themselves experiencing increased anxiety, fearfulness, or anger, they should take measures to ensure they are addressing their own needs like talking with grown-ups, such as friends or from religious leaders or counselors.
• Consider taking action. Children may feel better by doing something, whether it is a spiritual engagement or an act of kindness. Look for activities that are age-appropriate, such as praying together or sending a card or letter.
Given the recent tragedy paired with the current political climate, the news often saturates our daily lives. Experts in the child development field recommend caregivers develop age-appropriate ways to talk about news with children. While these conversations will be somewhat limited with younger children, caregivers are encouraged to discuss the news in a more detailed way with older children.
Bear in mind that many child experts consider exposing children to scary news coverage, such as the coverage of this shooting, can lead to a range of emotional and/or behavioral struggles (NCTSN).
With that noted, the table on pages 9 and 17 provides a brief synopsis of children’s understandings of news in general, signs/indicators of distress, and general age-specific recommendations (AAP; NCTSN; Ray, 2016).
Children, of course, may not be the only ones who need help coping; parents and caregivers also are connected to and impacted by this communal tragedy. If you find yourself and/or your children fixated on the details of this most recent and/or other tragedies or experience increased emotionality, behavioral struggles, or intense fears of safety that persists beyond several weeks, please reach out to a mental health provider for support or consultation.
In closing, I have found both personally and professionally that the most meaningful action-oriented strategies for helping children in the face of tragedies are twofold: (1) that you send the message both verbally and through your actions that you will do everything you can to keep them safe and (2) that you will be with and encourage them to express their feelings in ways that bring about healing.
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP, n.d.). Media and Children Communication Toolkit. Retrieved Oct. 29, 2018, from https://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/Pages/Media-and-Children.aspx,
Bratton, S., Landreth, G. L., Kellam, T., & Blackard, S. (2006). Child Parent Relationship Therapy (CPRT) Treatment Manual: A 10-session filial therapy model for training parents. New York, NY: Routledge.
Faber, J. & King, J (2017). How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk: A survival guide to life with children ages 2-7. New York, NY: Scribner.
National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.). Talking to Children about the Shooting. Retrieved Oct. 29, 2018, from https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources//talking_to_children_about_the_shooting.pdf.
National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.). Tips for Parents on Media Coverage. Retrieved Oct. 29, 2018, from https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/tip-sheet/tips_for_parents_on_media_coverage_shooting.pdf.
Ray, D. (2016). A Therapist’s Guide to Child Development: The Extraordinarily Normal Years. New York, NY: Routledge.
Association for Play Therapy (APT) Parents/Caregivers Corner: https://www.a4pt.org/page/ParentsCornerHomePag
Fred Rogers Parent Resources: https://www.fredrogers.org/parents/
National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) Families and Caregivers Resources: https://www.nctsn.org/audiences/families-and-caregivers
Elizabeth (Liz) Ener, Ph.D., LPC (TX), NCC, RPT, CCPT-S, is a child and adolescent counselor for Jewish Family Service of Greater Dallas.