Teaching Tragic Lessons

How to talk to your kids about harrowing situations


The tragic and horrific mass murder perpetrated on students and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut happened on the morning of Friday, December 14, 2012. For all of us – and especially those of us with kids at school – misery and anguish dominated. When our own kids got home from school, we had to figure out how to attempt to explain to them that kids just like them went to school and died there.

My family’s personal connections exacerbated the situation. I’m from that area. My sister teaches at Newtown High School. A childhood friend lost her niece, one of the many first graders killed. A family friend was a first-responding police officer. There were no possible words that would explain this madness to my own first-grader, nor to his fourth-and seventh-grade brothers, but we knew we had to try, because there was no way they wouldn’t hear about it and associate it with people and places they knew. We did our best to explain the situation, touching on mental illness, security and safety, the remote likelihood that this would ever happen to them, that they were safe, and that they would stay that way.

Another friend, with less direct connections, needed time to think through how to talk with her fourth-grade son. She let me know when I picked up her son for a playdate that he was out of the loop. We drove past a flag at half-staff and one of my kids asked, “Why’s the flag halfway down?” Our guest – supposedly enjoying a few more hours of innocence while his mom worked out how to tell him – said, “Oh, that’s because all those kids in Connecticut got shot yesterday.”

The point, which I am sure you grasp, is that it’s nearly impossible to shield your kids from upsetting and scary news. Personal, local and global tragedies will make themselves known. Since Sandy Hook, we’ve all talked with our kids about a variety of difficult conflicts and tragedies. It’s not easy, but advice from psychologists and communications experts can help:

For younger children
1. Ask what they know. It’s useful to know what they already understand so you can understand their perspective and build from there.

2. State the facts. Give them some basic information, but don’t over-explain or go out of your way to correct them, unless the information they have im- pedes their understanding.

3. Assure them that they’re safe. Images of conflict and violence can be stressful. Explain to your kids that they are secure. Walk that walk by paying extra attention to them if they seem at all anxious, and by maintaining a predictable family routine.

4. Listen to them. Let them ask ques- tions, and provide clear answers.

5. Limit exposure to television news. Not much good comes when young ones are exposed to the tragedy rehash that is our media landscape. For that matter, watching endless loops of horror on cable news isn’t great for any of us. Learn the facts, and then turn your attention elsewhere.

For older children
1. Again, ask what they know. Just as with young kids, it’s useful to know what they already understand.

2. Share the facts of the situation, and be prepared to discuss them. While you may not share your children’s opinions, don’t get into a debate. Talk, and also listen.

3. Be prepared for emotion. Adolescents may not want to discuss difficult subjects, at least not initially. Share the facts, assure your children that you’re there to listen and talk, and if they don’t want to talk, let it be. On the other hand, some kids may personalize and dramatically associate themselves with tragic news. Help them see that while what happened is truly terrible, it’s not personal, and they are safe.

4. Older kids will use television, the internet, the newspaper and other sources to find out more about what’s going on in the world. Expect this, and plan to spend time with them reading and watching together and discussing media coverage of difficult world events.

We all need skills and tools to talk with young people about threats such as war and violence. The ways we do that depend on our values and personal experience. What we tell our kids about risk and safety also depends on how others may choose to view us and our children or students. Due to factors out of our control such as race and religion, the prospects of danger and violence vary widely among and within neighborhoods, including the East Side. May all of our kids have the support to understand frightening world events, and may they all stay safe themselves, here and everywhere.