Advice for Parents and Carers

Talking to Children about Tragic Events

(Provided by Sarah Clarke)

Recent terrorist attacks such as that in Manchester has prompted many parents to seek advice on how to talk to their children about such tragic and frightening news. Should we mention it at all? If so what should we say and how should we say it?

It’s easy to assume that children, especially young children won’t know or understand what is going on. Whilst this may be true, we know that children are very sensitive to how the adults around them are feeling. Before learning to speak, children learn to read facial expressions, tone of voice and body language to gain information about the world around them. It doesn’t matter if children don’t understand the complexities of the political situation, they do, understand that the grown-ups around them or on television are scared or nervous and this can make them anxious.

The following advice may help:

1. How do you know if your child is worried?
When children are scared or anxious they might become more dependent on familiar adults; they may seem more clingy, cry when being dropped off at school or not want to go to bed. Excessive whining, aggressive behaviour, toilet ‘accidents’ or bedwetting may be signs of attention and reassurance seeking. The best thing to do is to keep checking in with your child: “You seem worried, is there anything you want to talk about?” “There are some scary things on the news at the moment, do you want to ask me about anything?”

2. Reassurance
A child’s first instinct is to look for safety and security in adults they know and trust. They need very clear messages that we are doing everything we can to protect them:

“When you feel frightened, Mum/Dad will look after you and keep you safe. Your teachers will take care of you.”

Older children can also be reminded that people they don’t even know are also doing this:

“It’s the job of the police and the government to keep everybody safe and a lot of people are working really hard on this when they go to work every day.”

3. Monitor scary and confusing images
The way the news is presented on television can be quite confusing for a young child as they process information in different ways to adults. They may also not have a good grasp of world geography so in their eyes the frightening events are taking place on televisions within their own homes:

“That news is frightening but it’s happening a long way away from us and where we live is safe”

Graphic and disturbing footage will be frightening to most people, again, if children don’t fully understand the factual information being presented they will resort to focussing on faces and voices. The words may not make sense but the child will sense that bad things are happening, sometimes when we are not even aware they are watching or listening. It is parents and carers responsibility to monitor what and how much of the news is on and when to turn it off:

“This news is really for grown-ups. I don’t want you to be worried or scared so I’m going to turn the television/ radio off / over onto something for children.”

4. Talking and Listening
We often struggle to find sense for ourselves as tragic events happen and it can be really hard to explain to children why things like terrorist attacks, wars, murders and natural disasters happen. If children ask questions it is a good idea to find out where they are coming from and what they know already:

“What do you think happened?” “What do you know about that?”

Children’s understanding can often be wildly different from the truth as they are still learning the difference between fantasy and reality. We can then help set them straight, at a level appropriate to their understanding and let them know that it is normal and natural to feel sad or frightened:

“People believe in different things and sometimes when they don’t agree they fight – just like you and your brother/sister but some grown-ups end up killing each other when they fight which is really horrible. It makes me feel angry / sad / scared when I hear about it. How does it make you feel?”

It’s really important that children don’t think there is anything wrong with them for the way they are feeling. Anger and sadness are part of being human, especially when we feel powerless. One of the most important messages we can give our children is “It’s ok to be angry but it’s not ok to hurt other people.”

“When you feel angry or sad, talking about it will help to make you feel better. I am always here to listen.”

As adults it can help us to process by talking about things with friends but this is often another way children can over-hear things which may not make sense to them so we need to have these conversations when we can be sure they are not listening. Remember, children are like bats, their hearing is often far better than ours or than we realise. They may be upstairs or in another room but still able to hear what we are saying.

5. Taking care of ourselves
Children are like little satellite dishes – very sensitive to the way those around them are feeling and they will absorb our feelings until they become their own. As the adults around them become more confident, secure and hopeful, our children will follow.

Sarah Clarke,
Child Psychotherapist
(Adapted from information by The Fred Rogers Company)