Talking To Your Children About A Tragedy


Depends on the type of tragedy

Specific parenting approaches of course will change based on whether the tragedy was personal or distant, whether it was unexpected and intentional like a shooting or expected and natural like the death of a loved one. Here are a few humble suggestions which could be broadly applied but adapted with the Christchurch tragedy heavy in my mind.

1. Fill Your Cup:

Parenting is hard when our biggest problems are dirty laundry and arguing about screen time. Everything can be much harder in the face of tragedy. We all would agree that if a marathoner chose to refuse water till the end of the race, that choice would be foolish and counterproductive.

Yet, we tell ourselves we will invest in rest, self-care, deep breaths and exercise some other time. When this situation is over, when the kids are in bed, during summer vacation. Do it now. Right now. Stop, and do something kind for yourself.

  • Acknowledge the pain and tragedy. Be sad by yourself and with loved ones.

  • Connect with your foundational truths, your values. I put my head down on the kitchen floor and said: I believe in love. I believe humans have the capacity for great care and connection. I believe I can do a small thing to change a piece of the world.

  • Listen to the heartbeat of your animal or love

  • Feel your own pulse and say to yourself “Thank you for everything, I am safe, I love and am loved.”

  • Close your eyes and imagine sinking gently into a deep pool of water.

2. Model Healthy Processing:

After you are centered and grounded, after you’ve had a chance to talk to yourself or another adult about all your own emotions and fears and irrational thoughts, then come to the task of talking to your children.

This is your chance to show them how they can care for themselves and their world when they encounter suffering. Because this will keep happening. In this rich expansive life there will always be death, always be heart break, there will always be things that feel senseless.

  • My number one rule of talking to kids is ‘assume nothing’ – begin by asking what they know already. How they understand it. Explore places that the child heard information that was incorrect, biased, or fear-based instead of fact-based. These are the areas where fear can fester and your own calm guidance is especially useful. For example, you could say:

We just don’t know why some people hurt others. We may never know. But we can think about how we’d like to respond.

When people are sad and hurt – what would you like to do or say to them? How would you like to care for yourself while we’re sad?

  • Guide them in compassion for self or others:

Here are some things I like to do: I make a list of things I really love in my life, I remind myself I’m safe right now.

I do something I enjoy. I connect with loved ones.

I talk about my feelings. They feel more manageable when I say them out loud and I usually find that others feel like I do, then I don’t feel alone, I feel like we’re in this together.

What sounds good to you?

  • Answer your child’s questions clearly and directly. Begin by saying ‘What questions do you still have? What things don’t make sense? What else are you wondering about?’ Answering questions immediately can be difficult. In the moment you may be able to answer partially or provide comfort.

I sometimes find it easier to write down all my child’s questions, explaining that I want to make sure to fully understand her questions, then talk with her Dad (or any other parent figures in the family) before answering. I’m always clear that we *will* answer all her questions, usually later that day or at a meal the next day.


3. Sit in the Safe and Predictable:

We all crave safety and predictability. One of the most powerful, grounding things you can do for yourself and your whole family is to reinforce safety and predictability in times of turmoil.

  • Turn off the echo chamber of the TV and social media. Your child is being exposed to these scary images, videos, and descriptions even when they appear to be playing.

  • Stick to your regular routine, reiterate the normal, predictable schedule.

  • Be gentle with yourself and each other. Spend extra time cuddling, resting, taking time together. We’re making extra time for long neighborhood walks, trips to the library, and pizza and movie nights.

  • You will likely feel ripples long after today. Children may act younger, have more trouble listening, or show brief period of trouble sleep. Again and again, bring compassion to yourself and your loved ones. And keep filling your cup.

For more information: please take advantage of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s wonderful resources this resource about talking to children about shooting.

This post on parenting in response to tragedy was originally posted on the Online Safety Group.