How to Talk to Your Child About Tragic Events

I’m sure that many of you would agree that this blog topic should not have to be written. Our children should grow up in a world where they don’t have to read frightening headlines or watch images of terrified people running from buildings or telling their stories of being in a mass shooting.

But unfortunately, we do not live in this world. And despite our best intentions to shelter our children from bad news, this does not mean that our children are not exposed to stories and videos that might leave them feeling very unsure and anxious. 

When this topic inevitably comes up – whether it’s from watching a news story or hearing adults talk about recent events – here are three things to keep in mind when talking to your children about mass shootings.

1. Don’t shy away from the topic.

When talking to your child about tragedies and potentially fear-inducing events, it is important to make room for your child to express his fears and ask his questions. It might be a knee-jerk reaction to say, “Oh, that’s nothing to worry about” or “Who was talking about that? You kids shouldn’t be talking about that!” While it’s understandable that you may be uncomfortable with this conversation with your child, shutting it down does not allow your child to process his fears or concerns.

When your child talks, listen. Don’t try to fix or brush away any of his concerns. Simply listen. Remember, it’s better out than in. Listen with compassion and reflect their worries back to them with empathy and understanding.

2. Step in with swagger.

Just like adults, the idea of a mass shooting or tragedy can leave your child feeling very unsettled. Your child will be looking for answers and reassurance that she is safe. This is when you step in with confidence and assure your child that there are systems put in place to ensure that we stay safe. Remind your child that there are policemen, teachers, principals and parents who are always looking out for her safety. If you use a location sharing app, such as Life360, use it to show your child how you are always connected throughout the day, and that she can reach out to you or her network any time that she feels unsafe or needs assistance. 

3. Own your grief.

When we hear of these events, it is natural that we should have our own feelings of sadness and grief. We need to welcome these emotions and let them flow through us, rather than trying to stuff them down. This may mean that your child may see you have some tears or share a moment with a friend or partner. While being mindful of the fact that you don’t want to overwhelm your child with your expressions of emotion, you can explain that your job as a parent right now is to be sad, and that your child does not need to console or tend to you. Share that you’ve got this, and that you just have to feel your feelings in order to work through them.

In your conversations with your child about these tragic events, ensure that you land in a place of hope. By ending a conversation with a belief of optimism, our brains become chemically inclined to perceive the world as a safer and more positive place. Talk about what can change as a result of this event, and what we’ve learned from this situation. Explain that most people are good, and that there are SO many people who are helpers in these situations. You don’t need to Pollyanna the situation away – and your child will be skeptical if you try – but do your best to show your child how there really is so much good in the world, and that they are very much a part of it.

Dr. Vanessa Lapointe joined Life360 in March 2019 as a Family Expert to help further the company’s mission of keeping families safe and connected. Dr. Lapointe is an Author, parenting expert, and registered psychologist. 

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