Parenting Tips: Talking To Preschoolers About Tragedies

“Mom, what happened?”

The news was on, and our preschooler came into the room. Before we could turn off the TV, he saw a good stretch of footage he shouldn’t have: Shootings. A deranged killer. Sobbing parents. A child murdered. “Why is that lady crying, mommy?”

Every ounce of our parenting instinct wants to wish this moment away — to press “DELETE” on our little ones being exposed to such horrors. Erase! Rewind! Pretend like it didn’t happen! They’re so innocent. How to explain such a terrible, grown-up reality? Can’t they stay in their little world of princesses and unicorns awhile longer?

Adding to the complexity of the situation was the presence of his 7-year-old brother and 9-year-old sister. What explanation to give them all? Our daughter jumped right in — she had been discussing it at school. “A man who was sick in his head went to the store and shot a politician plus a whole bunch of other people!” 7-year old: “What’s a politician? Like a donkey or an elephant?” 4-year-old: “Sick in his head? I was sick in my head last week! Remember mom? You took my temperature!” 9-year old: “He killed a girl my age!” 4-year-old: “Don’t die, OK?”

Graduate school lists of “how to talk to kids” at various ages started swimming through my head. But how to answer the 9-year-old with her more realistic questions and fears, while not confusing the preschooler? How to explain to the 7-year-old that death for people was much more serious than finding the dead fish in his classroom aquarium that morning? How to reassure the 4-year-old that he was safe — and so were we? And how NOT to infect them with my own fears and reactions?

I jumped into psychological triage mode. Job #1: Make sure to minimize the fear here. Explain and reassure. Job # 2: Respond to their questions — at their level. Job #3: Fall back on our routine. Demonstrate that things haven’t changed at home. Job # 4: Allow them to support each other, even as you try to correct the misinformation they may have. Siblings can be great resources for each other, giving reassurance in a way that we just can’t.

If there’s something big going on, and you need to stay tuned to the TV to follow anything for safety reasons, keep in mind who’s watching. Mute the sound when you can, and turn it off when possible. Little kids confuse “replays” with reality, and may think things are happening over and over again.

Here are more preschooler-specific tips for talking about tragedies:

  • Don’t assume — anything. Your preschooler may completely tune out the situation. If that’s the case, it’s normal — and OK.
  • Think in “fairies and pirates” language when answering questions. Your preschooler simply can’t understand the world of objective reality. To him, magical thinking applies.
  • Keep it simple, and always follow up with reassurances. “Sometimes bad things happen, but Mommy and Daddy always protect you. We’re all going to live for a long time, until we’re very old.”
  • Keep an eye out for questions coming up in different ways — like play. We’ve had a lot more “shooting” games going on around here these days (despite the fact that we don’t allow toy guns in the house). It gives me the chance to butt in and ask more about the games, and how they’re handling things.

If your kids are having a tough time adjusting to a tragedy, make sure to ask for help sooner — rather than later. It’ far easier to help a child adjust when the trauma is new. After awhile it gets more and more difficult. Ask her doctor, teacher, or a clergyperson for a referral to someone who works with young children. Here is a nice summary by Dr. Joel Dvoskin, posted on the American Psychological Association’s website:

Q. What should parents tell their children about this incident – especially since one of the dead was a 9-year-old child?

Dr. Dvoskin: Don’t be afraid to talk to your kids about these events. The most important thing after any trauma is to maximize real and perceived safety for the child…. Letting kids know that they are safe is likely to help and not likely to make things worse.

Don’t flood kids with too much information. The best way to decide how much information is appropriate is by the questions children ask you. Answer their questions honestly and directly, but remember that they are kids, so keep it simple (depending upon their age).

Parents should not lie to their children when talking about this tragedy. To the extent that children are unable to trust their caregivers, it is very difficult for them to feel safe.

Don’t “pathologize” normal human responses to frightening events. If your children are frightened or upset, it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with them. However, if problems such as misbehavior, sleeplessness or other signs of depression or anxiety become especially severe or extreme, then seek professional help.

Limit kids’ continued exposure to television coverage of the event. Depending upon their age and developmental status, they might not be able to tell if it’s one event being repeated or many events. This is especially true of younger kids. Parents might even want to limit their own television watching.

Pay attention to your own fears and anger. It is unlikely that you will successfully hide your feelings from your children, who usually pay keen attention to what you say and do. Take care of yourself, and if your own feelings or behavior become extreme and problematic, don’t be afraid to seek help for yourself as well.

If it is necessary to refer the child to a mental health professional, as always, step one is screening and assessment. Assess the child as a child, in totality, and in developmental context. Kids who have exaggerated reactions to what they see on TV may be kids who aren’t strangers to trauma. The real question is why this event traumatized this child…. Community trauma can bring to the fore issues that were already there.

I’ve also included a couple of additional links below for more information. In the meantime — stay safe.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather
The BabyShrink

Here is a nice guide from my colleagues at the American Psychological Association

And a helpful PDF that was written in response to 9/11 — still very relevant to any tragedy — that breaks down parents’ responses by age range

Welcome to BabyShrink.com, where parents turn for open, honest and direct answers to questions regarding their babies, toddlers and children up to age seven. Dr. Heather, the author of BabyShrink, is a licensed psychologist specializing in child development. She's also the mother of four young children, which gives her the unique ability to respond to parents' inquiries about the social, emotional and behavioral development of your children from both clinical and practical points of view.

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Posted in Childhood Fears, Developmental Grab-Bag, Older Kids
2 comments on “Parenting Tips: Talking To Preschoolers About Tragedies
  1. Dear Dr. Heather,

    You speak so clearly and effectively to the real fears that plague our children after a tragedy. Thanks for your post on such a timely matter. It’s important for us all to remember that our kids absorb everything around them, including our reactions. This will be helpful to any parent!

    Wendy @Kidlutions

  2. Great advice about the importance of providing information, but at an appropriate developmental level. And I like the reminder that continuity of routine can work wonders to ensure emotional safety and a sense of stability.

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I'm Dr. Heather Wittenberg, child psychologist and mom of four. I specialize in the development of babies, toddlers, preschoolers -- and parents! Here, we solve your child's most difficult sleeping, pooping, crying, and eating challenges. My advice is based in neuroscience, but written in grab-and-go terms you can use immediately. I've been featured in national parenting magazines, as a television guest expert, and as a parenting writer. Welcome!

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