What to Say When... Your Child Asks About a Tragic Event

Whether it's a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, your kids' questions are many and the answers rarely easy

The images flash across the television screen, and before you can change the channel your child starts asking questions: What happened? Why are those people scared? Can that happen to us?

It’s difficult to explain why something like a tsunami, tornado or terrorist attack occurs. But listening to your child’s questions and providing simple answers is vital to managing his curiosity and fears.

“The key for me is 'need to know,’” says Jeffrey Dolgan, Ph.D., senior psychologist in behavioral health at Children's Hospital Colorado. “You don’t want to over-talk or over-provide. The kids will tune out anyway. What you have to do is to get on their level and find out what their questions are.” Here are some tips on how to help your child understand a tragic event.

Don’t over-explain. If your child asks what a tsunami is, tell him it’s a big wave. A 4-year-old might be satisfied with that answer. An older child might ask how a tsunami happens. You can talk about underwater earthquakes, but if you start feeling like a professor in a lecture hall, odds are you’ll lose your audience. “Children have selective attention,” says Dolgan. “So for parents to take 20 minutes going through the whys and wherefores, I think they are wasting their time.” Instead, offer short answers and wait for more questions.

Limit media exposure. “You know that little game ‘Memory’ where you try to find the matching pairs?” says Deborah Best, Ph.D., developmental psychology professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “A preschool kid will beat you in a minute.” That’s because visual memory is particularly strong in little kids. Here’s an example: If you were a child when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, odds are you can visualize exactly how that wreckage looked in the sky. Try to avoid photographic and video exposure for young children and limit the constant replays for school-aged children.

Talk to your child’s school. For children over age 10, odds are that a major tragedy will be addressed in the classroom. Dolgan suggests talking to your child’s teacher about what was discussed, in what context, and whether video or images were shown so you are aware of how much your child knows and understands about what happened.

Make your child feel safe. Even if the tragedy was close to home, you can still reassure your child. For example, if you live in or near New York City where the Twin Towers once stood, tell them the story of that day. “But you then explain that that was 10 years ago, and since then we’ve learned a great deal about how to protect ourselves from these things,” says Best. “Focus on protection and try to put the event in a distant box, so it’s not something that’s immediate and going to happen again.”

Answer the tough questions. As children enter grade school, answering with “You don’t have to worry about that” is not going to cut it. Instead, let them know there is a plan to ensure their continual safety. For instance, seeing miners trapped underground make your child wonder what would happen if you ever got hurt at work. Who would take care of him? Tell your child that while you plan to live to a ripe-old age, if something did happen he would go to live with grandma (or whoever you’ve designated as their guardian). “This way, the child feels reassured,” says Dolgan.

"I don’t know" is okay. Why did a wall of water kill thousands? Why did a madman open fire? As your child ages, the questions will become harder to answer. And it’s okay to say, “I don’t know,” says Best. “We don’t really know sometimes why tragedies happen, and it’s okay to admit that,” she says. Understanding that there isn’t always an answer is part of growing up.

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