Talking to Kids About Tragedy

"What children need to hear most from adults is that they can talk with us about anything, and that we will do all we can to keep them safe." -Mr. Rogers, on how to address tragedies in the news

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Barak Obama addresses the country after Connecticut school shootings [CharlesDharapak/AP]

Kids either know what's going on, or they soon will. In their egocentric worlds, even something that happens far away is about them. The Child Development Institute and other experts recommend various iterations of:

  1.  Ensure that they feel safe
  2.  Be honest. 
  3.  Stay close by. 
  4.  Encourage questions and answer directly.

That doesn't mean you have to tackle the existential ("Why do people kill each other?") in this moment, or pretend like you have answers like that. Don't let fear of those questions discourage discussion. A good way to open the conversation, as Fred Rogers noted in his PSA, is to "right away ask them what they know about [the situation]. We often find that their fantasies are very different from the truth."

And while experts encourage questions, openness, and information, they also tell us not to keep the TV on. Overexposure isn't good for them or us, but support is. And giving support will come back to you.

More specific recommendations, by age group, are here.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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