Talking to children about tragedy

Published: Oct. 4, 2017 at 1:40 AM PDT
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Monday morning, as images and details of the massacre in Las Vegas started to emerge, parents were faced with the daunting task of explaining the tragedy to their children.

"I think it's important to remember children respond to traumatic events, especially traumatic events in the news, they take it very personal," Marty Elquist with the Children's Cabinet said. "It can be a time that elicits a lot of fear in children."

Sheltering children may be a parent's gut reaction, but with regular code red drills at school, more tragedies like this one happening, and social media, sheltering may not always a realistic approach.

"We can't lock our kids away from all the media, the news, and what's happening in this world," Brandy Olson, coordinator of Psychological Services with the Washoe County School District, said.

But how much exposure they get, Olson says, depends on their emotional development. Discussing it may not be an easy task, but child development professionals say the best thing to do immediately after a tragedy, especially for younger children, is limit their media exposure.

"It's not possible to do, but recognize as an adult if I'm watching the news and there's footage of this, maybe I should try to have my kids go somewhere else," Olson said.

But parents also need to realize children may also be more aware of what is happening than they let on.

"Isolating it is not going to help the child deal with the emotions they are feeling," Elquist said.

It doesn't make it easier that the tragedy happened in our backyard, and with many of us having close ties to Las Vegas, both Olson and Elquist say sweeping it under the rug may do more harm than good.

"I think that makes it more important to not make it taboo," Elquist said. "As difficult as it is for us to talk about it, we need to give children safe places to talk about their fears, their emotions their confusion."

It's also important parents or trusted adults are the ones giving kids information, not social media.

"By not talking about it, they are left on their own to kind of make sense of the world," Elquist said. "And at times like this it can be a very scary place for kids. Children, just like adults, want to know what's going on in their world. We need to respond to them as truthful as possible, but again not to overwhelm them with too much details."

There's no set formula on how much to tell children, and while parents know their kids the best, they should be aware of giving too much away.

"I think a lot of adults try to give kids too much information," Elquist said. "Children understand information in different levels according to their developmental age. I think it's important not to overwhelm children. Not to give them too much information. They are not going to understand it the way we do as adults. They aren't going to need all of the information we need as adults to make sense of their world."

Elquist says parents should also let their children lead the conversation.

"Ask the child, well what do you know about what happened, and be there for your child to say, well then, what questions do you have about that?," she said. "Let them ask the question, and then answer their questions directly. Not try to give them so much information that we think we need as adults. But answer their question directly. A few sentences is fine."

Be honest, but also provide reassurance.

"Spend a lot of time talking to them about safety," Olson said. "The community is a safe place. Our schools are a safe place. Our homes are a safe place."

Both Elquist and Olson also say parents need to pay close attention to signs of stress, especially if their children don't talk to them about the shooting. Look for changes in behavior like sleeping problems, nightmares, headaches, stomach aches, or are more clingy than they use to be.

"They may want to be close to you," Olson said. "They may not want to leave your side. Recognize those as signs of, hey, they may need some more information around this, they need some reassurance."

For more information on how to discuss tragedies with children,