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Finding The Words

How To Talk To Your Kid During Moments Of National Tragedy

The world can be a sad and scary place, and not just during presidential election years. Hardly a news cycle passes without a mass shooting, terrorist attack, earthquake, tsunami or other event that makes you lose faith in humanity or optimism. And since September 11, there’s been a lot of research conducted on risk factors for children exposed to natural and human-caused tragedies. Catherine Mogil, Assistant Clinical Professor at UCLA’s Semel Institute For Neuroscience And Human Behavior, and co-director of the Child And Family Trauma Service, is one of those researchers. She says that when something like this happens in your town (or another hemisphere), you should know how to answer kids questions, and when to quietly let them process it on their own.

Find Out What They Know
If your kid was at school when tragic news broke, there’s a good chance they’ve already heard something. Gently probe if and what they know about the recent goings on, and ask what they think about it. Acknowledge right away that something sad or scary has taken place, which opens the door for a conversation.

Offer Reassurance That They’ll Be Safe
The next step is to tell them that no matter what happened, you’re all going to be okay (even if you’re saying this while nailing 2 x 4s to the door). “Say, ‘We take steps every day to make sure we’re safe’,” like wearing seat belts, and looking both ways before crossing the street. That’s why we have police, firefighters, teachers and our family looking out for us,” says Mogil. “List all the people and resources the child has in their support network.” Hopefully one of them is a Navy SEAL who lives across the street.

Boston Marathon Bombing Memorial, Copley Square

Flickr / Ted Etyan

Take It One Question At A Time
After explaining at a basic level what happened (i.e. the zombies are upon us, but it’s ok, because Daryl Dixon will save us all) let them ask away. Kids will ask questions until their minds are satiated, and sometimes they’re good after just a few. “You don’t need to explain the full socio-political state of the world,” says Mogil. “If we don’t yet know what happened or who’s responsible, say that, and leave the door open to revisit the conversation any time.” Leave jumping to conclusions to every cable news outlet.

Small Children Express Shock Differently From Teens
Before they reach adolescence, kids will often show their anxiety physically:  Difficulty sleeping, headache, or stomach ache. They may exhibit with regressive behavior, meaning doing something they’ve grown out of, like sleeping in your bed instead of theirs. Teens might show their feelings with anger, denial or increased risk-taking behaviors, says Mogil. In either case, spending QT together is the cure. She says just being with them is reassuring because it re-establishes their sense of safety.

Limit Media Exposure For Young Kids; Offer Deeper Material For Older Ones
“In the beginning stages of a tragedy, it’s better to turn the TV and computer off with little kids,” says Mogil. This is partly to avoid misinformation or exposure to overly graphic material (as happened to some traumatized kids after 9/11), and partly to pre-screen what they’ll see and hear. If breaking news is interrupting “Dora the Explorer,” better to just shut it down.

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Once kids hit their teenage years, questions will get more detailed, philosophical, and impossible to answer. Offer to watch an episode of 60 Minutes on the subject. Point them to a book. Netflix a documentary. Call Noam Chomsky!

Natural Or Manmade, Handle It The Same Way
Mogil says it’s not the  type of tragedy, but your kid’s exposure and how much they can relate to what happened that determines the extent of their anxiety. A flood in Louisiana doesn’t hit very close to home for a kid who lives in drought-ridden California, unless they saw how kids their age were affected. (Especially when they’re young, kids often want to know if other children were hurt or killed.) Kids are more likely to be disturbed when these things happen near their homes or if it’s something that could potentially happen to them. Hearing about an earthquake in Chile resonates more with San Franciscans than those living in Chicago.

As Soon As Possible, Get Back to Routines
Whether or not a national tragedy has taken place where you live, the events have a way of taking us out of our routines. That’s okay — but only to a point. But once the moment of silence and reflection has passed, and processing has begun, get back to life. “It’s destabilizing for a child to get out of their routine,” Mogil says. So start up the soccer practices, family dinners, or Tuesday nights at Medieval Times again. But, respectfully.