Talking to Your Kids About National Tragedies

We had a chance to talk to our own Dr. Robin Henderson, PsyD, clinical liaison to Well Being Trust, and Chief Executive of Providence Behavioral Health, about the horrific events in Las Vegas that occurred this weekend. She says there’s one question that she always hears the most:

How do I talk to my children about this?

It’s natural for parents to feel torn between the desire to prepare their children for the world on the one hand, and on the other hand, that powerful instinct to keep their children safe from it all for as long as they can. It’s difficult to know whether you should try to explain an inexplicable horror to your children, like what happened in Vegas on Sunday night, or if you should keep them sheltered from it. How do you help a child make sense of something adults can hardly process themselves?

Dr. Robin Henderson, a licensed clinical psychologist, says it all depends on how old the child is. She approaches this conversation differently according to three age groups, giving extra consideration when appropriate to children that are especially precocious or resilient for their age.

For the first age group, children from 0 to 5 years old, “We have to protect them from things like this,” Henderson says. “Share as little as possible. Turn off the TV coverage. At this age they don’t have the cognitive abilities to process something like this yet. It just won’t make sense to them.” At this age a child may not understand that the tragedy is more than scary images on the TV screen; or worse, they may have trouble understanding that this isn’t happening right outside the home, in their front yard. Right now, Henderson says that natural instinct to protect them is the right instinct. “Cocoon them,” she says. “Make them feel safe.”

For children between the ages of 5 to 10 or 12 — middle school aged children — Henderson says the conversation will come up. They’re going to hear about it at school or on TV, from friends, or online. “Instead of volunteering information, let them guide the conversation with their own questions,” Henderson says. “They’re going to ask questions related to themselves, and to their own safety, about how their world becomes safe again.” And their questions might be strange ones too. “Maybe they’ll ask questions about the dogs,” Henderson says. “What happens to all the dogs of the people who died? Just follow along with their logic. Help them to understand whatever they’re wrestling with.” Try not to let them watch the news coverage alone — be there with them; help them process this in their own way, at their own speed.

And while Henderson says you should try to satisfy their questions, it’s also a good idea to be looking for some distractions too. “A night like this is a good time for a family game night.”

Photo by Rachel Lowe Photography

The conversation you have with older children — tweens and adolescents — will look different. “They won’t come to you,” Henderson says. “You’ll have to go to them, and that’s ok. They’ve already heard all about the tragedy. Try to talk it through in the car. Talk it through at the dinner table. It’s important to help them know what is true and what is not true right now.” Following a horrific event like the shooting in Las Vegas, the air is always thick with misinformation and speculation. “There’s always going to be that one child at school who says he heard it on good authority just exactly what happened,” Henderson says. “Help your children know the difference between speculation and fact. Help them dispel conspiracy theories. Tell them: this is what we know; This is what we don’t know yet; This is what we may never know.”

Older children may be anxious after mass shootings and other violent tragedies. After the events in Las Vegas, your child may be afraid to go to that concert he or she was just last week so looking forward to. Help them cope with this anxiety by discussing safety planning. “We know that many more people will die this year in auto accidents than will die in mass shootings,” Henderson says. “But we still get in our cars every day and go on with our daily lives. We know airplanes occasionally crash, and so we talk about safety before we take off — there’s the brochure explaining what to do in case of an emergency. There are flight attendants showing us where all the emergency exits are.” So if your child is anxious about going to a concert, for instance, come up with a safety plan, Henderson says. Locate the exits. Decide on a place where you’ll meet if you get separated. Come up with a strategy. “Having a plan helps them cope with their anxiety, and with the fear of those things they have no control over.”

Most importantly, in the wake of national tragedy, Henderson says, “Be a listener. Look for cues. Look for any changes in your children’s behavior.” Are they reverting back to old comforting, clingy behaviors? Are they having trouble concentrating? “The hard part,” Henderson says, “is that they may not be aware that they’re having trouble. Helping them process that will take some time to work through.”

Although we should always be mindful of self care and whole person health, it is especially critical in these times of added stress and uncertainty. Encourage your children to get out of the house. Take a walk together. Get them out with friends. Eat healthy meals together. Keep them to a reasonable sleep schedule. Attend to the body as well as the mind. Keeping good care of ourselves physically is an essential component to our overall well-being.

Push them to cope in productive ways, if you can. Dr. Henderson suggests that a great way to help your children process the tragedy, and to cope with it, is by drawing get well cards for the hospitalized victims.

Dr. Henderson also says this advice on self care goes for parents too. Try to be a model of the practices you want your children to adopt. Take good care of yourself. Take a break from the barrage of media coverage. Turn off the push notifications. “It’s not just for the children,” she says. “Right now we could all use a family game night.”

If your child continues to struggle with anxiety and fear, refuses or dreads going to school, Henderson says this is a good time to bring in your pediatrician. It may also be a help to your child if he or she calls into Teen Line, by dialing 310–855–4673, or by texting TEEN to 839863. Other teens that want to listen and talk are there manning the phones.