Supporting Children Through Grief

8 tips on talking to children about tragic events they hear about in the news.

Topics: Social Emotional Learning, Health and Wellness, Mental Health and Safety

8 tips on talking to children about tragic events they hear about in the news.
December 2019, Volume 43, Issue 4

As much as parents might try to shield children from tragedies like school shootings and terrorist attacks, there’s still a high chance their children will hear about them anyway—from the news or another student. And it’s not always an accurate portrayal of events when they get their information from these sources.

Schools play a role in making sure students understand the facts about tragedies and feel safe in their classrooms, homes, and communities. Here’s guidance on how to answer eight questions that might arise when talking to children about tragic events they hear about on the news.

  1. Could I have done anything to prevent this? Even when it’s obvious a child couldn’t have done anything to prevent or minimize the tragedy, they still might feel helpless. Make sure they know it’s a normal reaction, and suggest that together you focus on what can be done to help those affected.
  2. Whose fault is it? Blaming can help some people feel in control again, but it doesn’t ease feelings of grief or offer any solutions. Tell children that those who commit violent acts don’t represent a particular racial, ethnic, or religious group. Explain that it’s a time to be inclusive, accepting, and supportive of all who seek peace.
  3. Is this going to change my life? Everyone struggles with this question—not just children. Expect children to think more about themselves for a period of time. Once they understand they’re being listened to and their needs will be met, they’ll start thinking about others again.
  4. Can I help? Once students start to feel safe again, it’s natural for them to want to help. They can start by taking care of themselves. Encourage them to talk when they’re upset or worried and to be open and honest about their feelings.
  5. I don’t want to make things worse. Should I say nothing instead? Often what kids need most is to have someone they trust listen to their questions, accept their feelings, and be there for them. Don’t worry about knowing the perfect thing to say; there is no answer that will make everything OK. Listen to them, and answer questions with simple, honest, and direct responses.
  6. What if it upsets them? Remember that it’s the events that are upsetting them, not the discussion. Talking about the event will let them show you how upset they really are. This is the first step in coping with their feelings.
  7. Should I bring it up even if they don’t ask questions? It’s generally a good idea to bring up a tragedy with children, no matter how young they are. But don’t force them to talk to you about it. Leave the door open for them to come back to discuss it later once they’ve had a chance to start processing it.
  8. How can I tell if children need more than I can provide? Events might trigger other distressing experiences, worries, and concerns unrelated to the tragedy. Remember, don’t wait until they need counseling; take advantage of counseling and support when you think it’ll be helpful.

Check out the full guide from the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.

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