Helping children when another big tragedy is all over the news

The Parkland school shooting: What your children need right now

Another horrific event has occurred, and it will dominate the news and social media for days and weeks.

Except for the very youngest children, you won’t likely succeed in sheltering them from it. They will seek to understand what they see and hear, trying to put it into the context of what they know about the normal and expected.

The amount of information children need from parents in such situations differs depending on the child and, of course, his or her age. Here are a few resources to help talk with your children about the school shooting that took place on Valentine’s Day in Parkland, Florida:

 Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

Talking about tragic events in the news

From the Fred Rogers Co.

The way that news is presented on television can be confusing for a young child. The same video segment may be shown over and over again through the day, as if each showing was a different event. Someone who has died turns up alive and then dies again and again. Toddlers often become anxious since they don’t understand much about videotape replays, closeups, and camera angles.

Understanding what children observer surrounding big events, and helpful hints for talking to them about it.

Read the article

Family Communications – now named the Fred Rogers Co. – was founded by Fred Rogers in 1971 as the non-profit producer of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for PBS. The company extended Fred’s values and approach to other efforts in promoting children’s social, emotional, and behavioral health and supporting parents, caregivers, teachers and other professionals in their work with children.

When little ones learn of the bad things in the world

Try to remember what it was like when you were small and you lay in bed in the dark at night, afraid. If you have a better than average memory, you can recall the monster under the bed, the witch in the closet, the skeleton that tapped at your window with a bony finger.

Maybe you smile now when you remember those fears, because of course there was no monster, no witch, no skeleton – only shadows and a tree branch being blown by the wind.

You were probably 3 or 4 years old. You called for mom or dad to come protect you and maybe they came and sat beside you for a while; maybe they came and yelled at you to go to sleep; but whichever, mom or dad was there, and pretty soon it was morning.

Fast forward through a year or two of mornings, to the day you realized that while they could protect you from monsters under the bed, there were real monsters in the world against whom they just might be helpless.

  • How were they going to protect you from a kidnapper climbing in the window if they were sound asleep in their bed down the hall?
  • How were they going to save you from a fire suddenly engulfing the house; hadn’t you seen a father crying on the evening news because he’d been unable to get through the flames to rescue his little boy?
  • What if a robber broke down the door, and that robber had a gun?
  • What if there were a flood, or a tornado, or an earthquake, bigger and stronger than any grown-up could possibly be?

At those memories, we bet you stop smiling. That’s a terrifying moment – the one in which you discover that your parents aren’t gods.

Now you’re the parent of course, wondering what to say to your fearful child when he realizes that you’re not godlike. You are confident in your ability to comfort your child when he is younger and afraid of the products of his own imagination, but you are unsure of what to say when he asks about something he’s seen on television or heard about from his friends – something all too real. Is it true? he might ask. Did that really happen?

You don’t want to lie. But listen to the question. What is he really asking? Probably what he wants to know is, “Could that happen to me and to my family?” And what he needs to hear from you isn’t that bad things don’t happen, but reassurances that you are not helpless; that you know what to do.

Yes, houses catch on fire, but you have a smoke detector, you know how to call the fire department, and you know how to get everyone out of the house.

Yes, there are tornados, but you know the part of the house where the beams are strong and the family can go until the storm blows over.

You know how to keep him safe. Those things are not for him, but for you to worry about.

Your attitude and tone of confidence will be as reassuring as the words you use. By the same token, if every time there’s a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder you visibly cower and rush to switch on the weather channel, it will be noticed. Try to take control of your own fears even in a potential crisis and certainly in an actual one. Your reaction is vital to your children’s sense of security, so for their sake, continue if at all possible to exude confidence and constancy. Collapse later, in private.

And then there’s the Big Question that they are going to ask sooner or later: are YOU going to die?

A Victorian parent might have answered, yes, I am going to die and you are going to die; everyone is going to die, so you’d better be very, very good every day because you never know if it’s going to be your last; you could very well die in your sleep tonight.

Those Victorian parents must not have realized what the children were really asking, which was, surely, “Are you going to die when I am still little and so desperately in need of you?” Knowing that, your answer would be more like, “I’m not going to die for a very long time, and I’ll be here to take care of you until you are grown up and have children of your own.”

Pardon us for a diverting story about one of the Grandmothers’ adorable grandchildren. One very precocious just-barely-3- year-old girl asked her grandma when she was going to die. Grandma took the girl on her knee and gave her several paragraphs about the seasons of life, and how she planned to be around until the child had children of her own – until her mommy was a grandmother, in fact, and that all this was very beautiful and not at all sad. The little girl listened quietly, and then asked, “When you die, can I have your shoes?”

So we are advised to listen carefully to our children’s questions, and also to what they say when they don’t know what questions to ask, or if they don’t seem to feel reassured by our reassurances.

Ask, “Why do you think it could happen?” or “You look worried; I’m wondering what worries you.” Try to find out what he or she has observed or been told – and certainly don’t dismiss those fears, not even the monster-under-the-bed ones.

Do both: take his worries seriously but also offer reassurances that you know how to keep him safe.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/ 

Another tragedy: Addressing it with your children

This article was previously published, and has been updated to reflect the latest events.

We work so hard to protect the innocence of early childhood in our family’s microcosm: Be gentle with the kitty. Put the cap back on your marker. Water the flower a little — not too much — so it can keep growing. Walk around the wriggly worms on the rainy day’s sidewalk.

All the tiny nuances of awareness that we try to give to our kids.

When something large and tragic happens in the world around us — as with the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida or natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Maria — it affects us all. We bear witness. We empathize. We wonder what it would be like if it happened to us, our loved ones, our children.

It can be too much to bear, and we may slip a little in maintaining the protective bubble we’ve put around our children. We might try to talk in code about the tragedy – thinking our kids won’t notice what the grown-ups are talking about. We might let our guard down about sheltering kids from the media – because we desperately want and need more information out of the wish to have the world feel right again.

So, in this awful moment, what can we, as parents, educators, care providers do for young children?

  1. Go easy on yourself if you slip up. Notice that you might have talked in front of a child, forgive yourself for the understandable slip, and tend to what that child might have heard. Start with something simple: “I think you heard the grown-ups talking and I bet you have some questions,” or “I know I usually don’t watch the news when you are in the room. You must have some thoughts about what the news person was talking about.”
  2. Don’t guess at what the child does or doesn’t know. Ask for their thoughts and theories. This is a great rule of thumb for any of life’s difficult moments: Spend more time listening than talking. Your job is to contain what the child has been exposed to, to garner his or her ideas and  provide compassionate corrections for what has been misunderstood.
  3. Don’t give out any additional details, other than what’s needed to correct the child’s theories. If we find the details overwhelming as adults, then the details are not appropriate for children on the periphery of the tragedy. By this I mean that unless a child is in a geographic or social radius that connects them directly to the tragedy, then the child does not need details. Children on the periphery only need reassurance that their trusted grown-ups know how to keep them safe and that the people far away who have been through something scary are getting good help.
  4. If a child is within a geographic or social radius of the tragedy, it is important to slow down and think together with someone who knows a lot about child development about how best to address the child’s concerns. This must be individualized. There is no standard way to help a child integrate tragedy.
    We have some professional guidelines (Do things in bearable bits; Keep what routines can be kept to provide reassurance; Know that children process things differently than adults; Avoid euphemisms …) but cannot do written justice to the help that is needed in these situations. If you care for a child whose life has been touched by tragedy, reach out for developmental guidance. If you don’t know how to find someone in your community, contact us and we will help you find someone.
  5. Demonstrate to your child that our lives keep structure, even when there is something tragic going on for people we care about. We still eat, sleep, go to school and work, make art, play, notice nature, read, make music, even laugh. It is not disloyal to our community or our loved ones to still take pleasure in the world – even if we are mindful of suffering at the same time.
  6. Turn off all media. The images and narratives seem to pop up and surprise the grown-ups. Do not take any chances with what your child might be exposed to. Even during children’s programs we will sometimes see ads for news programs. It is just not worth the risk of overwhelming your child. Rely on favorite CDs, DVDs, apps or tech-free entertainment. A child who is not in the geographic or social radius of tragedy need not hear about it accidentally.
  7. If your child has been exposed to even a tiny piece of information, take the time to slow down and listen to what he or she heard or saw. Children (and adults) are traumatized by information that is not easily integrated into their understanding of the world. As therapists we know  there is always a way to integrate difficult things into our understanding – it just takes time, compassion, repetition (therefore patience), and a willingness to put things into words.
    Knowledge does not get woven into our awareness with one 5-minute conversation; it takes revisiting over and over.
    (Think about how many times you have to tell your children they must hold hands to cross the street or not to hit the dog … if it takes that many times with simple safety, then it takes that many times with big things like tragedy and loss.)

As therapists, this is what we do: We help parents find compassionate, containing words so they can have the conversations over and over, so their children can take in life’s experiences without becoming overwhelmed.

As community members, our thoughts are with the victims, families, and first responders in Parkland – and around the world.