“It’s a Very Scary Time.” Explaining Tragedy to Kids

Erin Leonard photo

Within the span of three weeks, we’ve seen deadly attacks in Paris, Colorado, and now San Bernardino.

It’s almost impossible for anyone to understand why this happened. Especially some of the most curious people we interact with, children.

But child psychologists say there are some things that parents should highlight.

“You always want to start by asking the child if they’ve heard anything or seen anything that they have questions about or frightens them,” said Dr. Erin Leonard, a child psychologist. “By doing so, you’re not giving them any information that they aren’t prepared for, psychologically or emotionally, to handle.”

“Children of a younger age are looking for assurance,” said Dr. Ahmed Elmaadawi, a child psychiatrist with Beacon Medical Group at Memorial Hospital.

“They’re looking for an adult authority figure to give them the assurance they need and the confidence that everything will be okay,” he said.

While that can be hard to do, it’s also okay to let kids know that even adults can be scared when these kinds of things happen.

“You definitely want to make sure your answers are concrete and clear,” Dr. Leonard said. “You want to validate and honor how they feel about it, so you want to say things like ‘it’s a very scary time. It’s a very frightening time.'”

Even though it is a frightening time filled with uncertainties, it’s also important for a child to know that people are working hard to keep them safe.

“Once they lose the safety net, they almost start to panic,” Dr. Elmaadawi said. “They’re not able to cognitively cope with all the stress because they’re not mature enough to look at all the aspects of this problem.”

“If the child kind of guides you through this discussion, they will instinctively ask the questions they’re prepared to handle,” Dr. Leonard said.

Learn How to Talk to Kids About Violence in the News. For more advice from Dr. Erin Leonard get her latest book Emotional Terrorism: Breaking the Chains of a Toxic Relationship.