10 Tips for Talking to Your Keiki About Tragedies

What and how to tell children about the Las Vegas massacre, hurricane devastation and other painful events.

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The Las Vegas skyline during a more peaceful time.

News of the mass shooting in Las Vegas has shaken all of us. As parents, we also worry about what our keiki will see and hear about deadly events. Television, the internet, Facebook, Twitter and more expose our kids to worldwide tragedies instantaneously. So, if we want to talk to them first, what should we say? For advice, we spoke to two local experts—who are also moms—and did some research online. Here our 10 tips for parents, when tragedy strikes.

1. Talk to your keiki. “You shouldn’t worry that (your kids) will hear about it. You should assume they will. It’s just the world we live in,” says licensed psychologist, registered nurse and mom Lisa L. Hartwell. Mother of three and licensed marriage and family therapist Britt Young says this is especially true for kids in school. Because of that, both Hartwell and Young say it is best keiki hear sad news from you so that they receive the information in the most appropriate way possible for their ages, family values and experiences.

Young says for kids 4 years and younger, “the nature of the event will most likely be above their scope of understanding. So, unless there is a close connection (someone in the family or friends who are affected), it may be best to discuss the event in private with adults or older children.”

2. How to talk to children 6 years and younger. Do not provide unnecessary details; do focus on your child’s feelings.  

Young says it is best to find a quiet space and moment and to get down to your child’s level. “Speak calmly with words your child can understand. …Focus on making sure your child feels he or she is safe,” she says.

“It should always loop back around to how they are safe with you,” Hartwell says. “If they have any questions, don’t offer more than a couple sentences. They usually move on very quickly at this age once they are satisfied you are not worried about this”

Psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., author of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids, used this example after the Connecticut school shooting in 2012: “Someone went into a school and they hurt a lot of people. But we know that your school is safe, and you’re safe in your home.” Read the full article on PBS Parents.

3. How to talk to older children. Older kids can understand more complex issues. Ask questions to gauge their readiness to grapple with world issues and take the time to have a thoughtful conversation.

For example, when speaking about the recent hurricanes and other natural disasters, Young suggests exploring different weather patterns and community vulnerability. This can lead to a discussion about your own neighborhood and how your family and community leaders work to keep everyone safe. 

Talking about tragedies also offers an opportunity to teach older children about empathy, something kids often struggle with, Hartwell says.  As children develop their moral beliefs, they often see events in stark black-and-white terms, so be careful about making generalizations. Young suggests avoiding phrases such as “he’s bad” or “she’s evil” when talking about people who have inflicted pain on others. She encourages parents to let their kids know that a person can have good and kind traits, as well as hurtful ones.

“It’s hard in today’s climate to avoid ‘all or nothing’ thinking,'” she says, “but this kind of dialogue can cause a child … to believe that people are ‘all this way’ or ‘all that way.'” Commonsensemedia.org also recommends that parents be ready to correct misinformation received from friends.

4. Take Action. “This is an empowering asset we all have and is rooted in our ability to have hope that  ‘things will be and can be OK again and I can have some contribution to that.’ Donating to any of the fundraising efforts, even locally, practicing safety measures, memorizing your phone number etc.,” says Hartwell. Check out these websites that help keiki do good.

5. Stick to your usual routine. After a tragedy, parents often want to keep their keiki safely at their side. But, child psychologists say it’s important to maintain your regular schedule. Kennedy-Moore told PBS, “By bringing our children to school, we are communicating a very important message about courage and resilience, about going on despite terrible things that happen.”

6. Turn off the TV. Repetitive images and stories can make dangers appear closer to home, that they happen more frequently than they actually do, or that the risks are greater than they might be. If older kids want to be informed, see Common Sense Media’s “Best News Sources for Kids” page.

If you have older children who are more likely to research events online, Young suggests reading the news together. She says to select a source such as PBS or a local news station, which may be less likely to have less dramatic content, and spend some time learning more together. Healthychildren.org advises recording newscasts so you can review them before watching it with your child.

7. Monitor Internet usage and set expectations. You can set your URLs to open to non-news-based portals and research all the latest ways to keep your kids from finding inappropriate content on the Internet. “But all the safety measures mean nothing if you are not basing your expectation on your family values” says Hartwell. “This is what guides kids’ behaviors when we’re not around. And that is what you are hoping for with internet safety. It comes back to asking what they have seen and if they have any questions or comments.”

8. Watch for signs of stress. According to the American Psychological Association, signs of stress in children can include withdrawing from activities they used to enjoy, “feeling sick” and changes in appetite. If those symptoms last for more than a week or two, you may want to consult a mental health professional such as a psychologist. 

“Some children try to make sense of the event by asking lots of questions,” Young says, “This is normal. However, look for signs he or she is becoming obsessed with a particular story,” especially if your child spends a lot of time alone finding articles about the event, instead of being with friends or family.

Nightmares usually only occur when children know too many details or see something gruesome online or on TV, says Hartwell. “With younger kids it may come out in their play … they may ‘act out’ what they are worried about. It’s OK. Just let them work through it and be observant and mindful if any behavior is out of their ‘norm’.”

9. Watch what you say, even if you think your child isn’t listening. “Parents and families do not realize how much our kids are listening to us,” Hartwell says. “It IS up to us to take responsibility of what we want our children to know and follow. You should be able to be honest, but you should also be having those conversations of what you want to tell your children before you have the conversation.”

10. Find more guidance online. We found more good advice in “How to Help Kids Feel Safe After Tragedy” on PBS.org“Talking to Children About Tragedies & Other News Events” on healthychildren.org also has tips for talking with kids with developmental challenges as well as links to a wide variety of resources. And don’t neglect your own feelings of grief, anxiety or anger. Taking care of yourself will enable you to take better care of your little ones.

Lisa Hartwell, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist in Hawai‘i who specializes in anxiety, grief and relationship issues, as well as a registered nurse and author of “Bad Apples: How to Feel Good Even When Rotten Things Happen.” Hartwell Therapy & Consulting, LLC, (808) 384-3840, drlisahartwell.com

Britt Young is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Hawai‘i Kai. Xplor Counseling,  LLC, 377 Keahole St., Suite E211-D, (808) 384-3840, xplorcounseling.com