close up on mother holding distressed child

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Talking to kids about tragic events

Bad things happen and the news isn’t always good. Here’s how to tackle tough topics with your child

On April 23, like most houses in the GTA, our radio was on and we were silently taking in the tragic event that had happened in our city. Listening to broadcasters recount how a white van had intentionally plowed through pedestrians on Yonge Street immediately subdued our usually rowdy dinner hour. My three-and-a-half-year-old sat at the table with us, alert that something was different. He kept asking: “Who’s on the radio?” “What van?” He’s still young, so short, non-specific answers satisfied him. We turned the radio off, carried on with dinner and he seemed to forget about it.

My little guy still inhabits a small, self-centred world (thankfully) where truly bad things don’t happen. But as he moves from toddler to preschooler, I’m sensing a change is coming, and I know that my sweet boy can’t be shielded from human suffering forever. So how can I talk to him about these types of tragedies as he gets older, when his little brain starts trying to make sense of what is happening outside his immediate world?

I went in search of answers, and the first thing I learned is that parents shouldn’t feel pressure to discuss tragic news events with their young children. If you’re pretty sure they won’t hear about it from another source, then maybe it’s worth not talking about it at that time,” says Dr. Robin Holloway, a child psychologist at Toronto’s The Willow Centre. But do keep in mind that your kid might hear about it from other sources. If you think it may have come up at school, then it’s worth having a discussion to find out what your kids know.

Here are some other tips.

Consider their age

“You have to be aware of the child’s developmental status,” says Dr. Holloway. He recommends taking a different approach when talking to a preschooler, a school-age child and an adolescent. For instance, you may want to sit down and start playing with a preschooler and see where that takes you, while an adolescent might be more willing to engage in a frank discussion.

Let kids take the lead

If your child brings up a current event, it’s important to set aside some time for a discussion. But don’t force them to open up about a local tragedy if they aren’t ready for it – not wanting to discuss the issue may signal that they have a great deal of anxiety. “The child may be telling you: I’m so anxious that I don’t even know how to talk about this,” Dr. Holloway says.

Kickstart the conversation

You could start your discussion by saying: I want to talk to you about this. Would that be OK? Keep an eye on your child to see if they seem overwhelmed by the information. Dr. Holloway suggests reminding them: We can stop anytime.

Make sure you have time to talk

If your child brings up a tough topic when you’re dashing out the door to get them to school, the conversation might be rushed and interrupted. Let them know you want to discuss this with them and set aside a time later that day where you can sit down and have a conversation without distraction.

Limit media exposure

Repeated images can be confusing, disturbing and overwhelming. Turn the TV and radio off, and review screen time rules with older kids. They don’t need the details of the tragedy played on repeat.

Remind children that they’re safe

Kids need to be reassured that they’re secure. Preschoolers in particular need to hear that while these things happen, they are safe and will be protected by their parents. School-age children will understand that a tragic event is unusual and frightening, and will ask you why it happened. Dr. Holloway recommends reassuring them that, thankfully, these things aren’t the norm. The discussion with adolescents may be more of a debate style. They might talk to you about why the tragedy happened and be interested in discussing right and wrong, and morality and immorality.

Watch their reactions

“Try not to overwhelm your children with information,” says Dr. Holloway. “Keep it at a level they can understand and process.” He also advises monitoring your kids closely. Pay attention to what they are saying, their gaze and emotional expression, and how they seem to be reacting. Ask your child how they’re feeling about what they’re learning from you and ask them to relay back the information. This will give you an idea of how they’re processing what you’re telling them, and when it’s time to stop the conversation.