How to talk to your children about tragedy


I’m looking at a pile of little boy clothes outside my back door this morning. It often looks like this if we forget to clean up. My kids shed their clothes almost as soon as they are home in search of water play of some sort: hose on the slide, sprinklers, water gun fights. They are supposed to put their clothes in the hamper. That obviously doesn’t always happen. This is their life for the most part; their glorious, uncomplicated life so far. They wake up and play, they go to school, they come home and play, and their biggest worries are whether they get their favorite popsicle flavor or whether brother chose “my very favorite” toy.

I know those days are limited, though. The time is dawning when they will be more aware of things going on in the outside world, and while I do not think that is necessarily a bad thing, I am concerned about the volume and intensity of the information readily available through both news and social media. This is scary for a mama of littles.

According to the FBI Hate Crimes Statistics from 2014, there were 5,462 incidents involving hate crimes in the United States, with 6,681 victims. Of those, 47 percent were racially motivated (63.5 percent by anti-black bias and 22.8 percent by anti-white bias), 18.6 percent were motivated by sexual-orientation bias, 18.6 percent by religious bias, and 11.9 percent by ethnicity bias. What’s most interesting to me is that if you follow the data back to 2005, reported hate crimes have actually been decreasing in number (in 2005, there were 7,163 reported) despite more agencies reporting (12,417 reporting in 2005 and 15,494 reporting in 2014).

Why is this important? Well, because if you watch the news, you would think that crimes such as these are drastically increased when they are not. Recently, I was asked by a local news station to comment on how to talk with children about terrible crimes like the mass shooting in Orlando. I’m a child psychiatrist, so I get asked questions like this all of the time. My answer is always the same.

  1. If they haven’t heard about it, judge how likely it is that they will hear about it and how prepared you think they need to be before you bring it up at all. How will this help them with today/tomorrow?
  2. If you judge that they need to be told, then bring it up casually and simply. Ask a simple question like, “Have you heard about … ?” If your child brings it up, be open and honest but don’t overdo it.
  3. Follow your child’s lead and only answer the questions asked. Some children need lots of information to feel safe and secure; some will only become more anxious with additional information.
  4. Be reassuring. It is unlikely that something like what they are watching on the news will happen to them.
  5. Be honest. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. If you don’t understand, it’s okay to say that. And while it’s good to be reassuring, don’t be over-reassuring. Don’t predict a perfect future that you cannot guarantee. Terrible things will happen again, and your child needs to know that you can be trusted, to be honest with them.

Our goal as parents is creating open communication our children can trust. You want them to come to you first about the hard topics: sex, drugs, death, fear, terror.  We want our children to be appropriately prepared and help them process information. If you would like to gain or promote a lesson from tragedies, the first is always this: look for the helpers. Mr. Roger’s taught us best in this regard. Look for the vigils, the massive peaceful walks, the blood donation lines. The second is this: We are all more alike than different, and our differences are beautiful and something to be celebrated, not feared.

Dangers exist, but we don’t want to act like there are absolute dangers around every corner. Most crime statistics have decreased drastically since we were kids, but many people feel that they live in a much more dangerous place.

Which leads me to my number one recommendation of all time: Turn off the news! Go outside. Let the kids shed their clothes and run in the sprinklers. In fact, turn all the sprinklers on, and watch the rainbows multiply.

Sarah Mallard Wakefield is a child psychiatrist.

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