How do you talk about tragedy?

Between the shooting in Arizona here in the States, the flooding in Australia, and the anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, there's been a lot to explain to kids in the past few days.

How do you do it?

I try to be honest whenever I talk to my kids, but it can be tricky to be honest and yet not give so muc detail that we scare them. I did tell my older son that one of the people killed in the Arizona shooting was a girl his age, and that sobered him.

I think my gut reaction is to revert to what Mr. Rogers said: "When bad things happen, look for the helpers."

Not only does that divert the focus from the scary thing, it also sets kids up to know that they can be helpers when bad things happen, too. That they're not just helpless.

So what have you said to your kids about any recent events? How old are your kids?

I told mine (almost-9 and 5 1/2) that someone shot at a group of people in Arizona, and some of the people died. I said that we don't have all the information yet, but that it looks like the man had a sickness in his brain that made him think he should shoot the people. And then we talked about the people that helped in the situation.

What have you said? I think this is one of the hardest things about parenting older kids.

27 thoughts on “How do you talk about tragedy?”

  1. Re: Arizona, I am honestly glad my kids have no idea. I am incredibly upset and so angry. I don’t know that I would be able to explain it even-handedly.In Israel we did have a terrible forest fire about six weeks ago that damaged hundreds of thousands of trees; about 45 people were killed as a result. We talked about that–we were on a list of people (along with thousands of others) who volunteered to take in people who were evacuated from the fire zone. We weren’t called, but we were ready to host people at a moment’s notice.
    We’ve made a special container to collect spare change to replant the forest.
    But I personally think natural disasters are a lot easier to explain than man-made ones 🙁

  2. Oof. Yeah. I’ve said very similar things to what you said, to Mouse who is 6 1/2. They’ve also discussed it at the school wide morning circle at school – we explicitly have a peace and social justice focused curriculum at Harvey Milk Elementary, and they don’t hide the fact that our namesake was also shot by a crazy person who targeted him because of who he was. The principal talked about it very gracefully – she asked people to keep the victims in their thoughts and have discussions in their classrooms about peaceful action and disagreement. The way she said it, your child wouldn’t have been told it if you had decided not to tell your child, but would get a solid message if you had.

  3. As tough as it is to talk to kids about tragedy, I think it can be an opportunity to connect with them. You can learn a lot about your child by the kinds of questions that they ask, and it gives the parent opportunities to talk about values and moral action.With Arizona, for example, you can talk to your child about all of the people who helped, like the intern who gave the congresswoman medical aid until help arrived.
    The evil is much tougher to talk about. Most adults can’t make sense of it! I guess you could say that some people are very troubled, and do bad things. But, I think it is important not to discuss many details and reassure your child that they are safe.

  4. Since I live here in Tucson, the shooting was unfortunately down the street from where I live, at the Safeway I use, I have given this some thought. This also came up on my TV show yesterday, too.All I can say, since there’s no one right answer, is follow the child’s thought. Say what’s true and then take a breath and wait. Wait to see how your child digests the news. Do you see fear on her face? Do you see lack of understanding? Once you see how she took the news, ask a question. Just one question. Then see how she answers.
    If you follow this process you and your child can remain on the same page. This allows you to speak age appropriately, and not giving out a ton of information that could potentially really freak her out.
    Routine is extremely important. If this happens in your community, as it has in mine, you allow the kids to focus on the situation for a little while and then return to routine. You tell them about the helpers in the situation, but don’t share all bad the details. Then go back to life.
    It sounds harsh to do that. But it shows the children, by returning to life, that bad things happen, we deal with them and share our feelings, and we go back to life. I think that gives them a sense of safety, a foundational memory of how dealing with a tragedy works, so they have the memory of it goes as they grow.
    I also think that things like this bring our world together. Human beings bond through tragedy. When my kids were young I wanted to give them a sense of hope that the world is making new decisions based on seeing something like this unfold. It’s what I want to believe for myself.
    Hope it makes sense-have to run!
    Be well, and today, in honor of the funerals, be the change you hope to see in the world!

  5. Avidly reading the comments as we’re not there yet with DS being 2.5.And, OMG, Sharon! Was thinking of you last night when the President was speaking at the memorial. Thanks so much for your feedback on how to approach things like this with kids. I still find it hard to know how much info to give for bad things that affect DS’ world.
    But I’m thinking (hoping) that once he has more words in his vocabulary and starts to ask questions it’ll be a bit easier to guage it as you mention above.

  6. My kids are almost 9 and 6. When newspaper arrived with a photo of all those bowed head in Washington, the kids wanted to know what it was about. We didn’t get into too many specifics, but explained that a man had fired a gun at a crowd of people and that some them had been killed. We talked about mental illness, and how it can make people do things that don’t seem to make sense to us, but we stressed that most people with mental illness are not violent.But we chose not to share that one of the victims was a child. I think that would have been too much for both of them. My almost 9 y.o. is a seriously sensitive kid who feels things very deeply. He’s not at all comfortable with violence and I think the the reality of a child his own age being shot would have been too much information for him. But I suspect there are 9 year olds out there who might be better equipped to cope with that information, and if you have older kids who will be talking about it, it’s probably best to have the conversation yourself, rather than have them pick it up second hand. Of course, my son may hear about it at school. In which case, we’ll just try to help him work through it as best we can, as we try to work through it ourselves.
    Another piece of info I didn’t share with the kids was where it happened. When I think of the number of times in a week we walk in and out of a grocery store, I don’t know, I just didn’t want them to be frightened to go to the supermarket, or, for that matter, a political event. The fact that I may never feel comfortable taking them to a political event is another topic for discussion.
    I’ve written about this a bit on my own blog, hoping to work through some of the confusion I have, in the hopes of being able to deal more effectively with any questions from the kids, but I’m finding this hard to shake. Maybe it’s just the fact that I have a child the same age as the one who was killed. But this is a tough one to deal with… Best of luck to everyone who has to talk with their children about this. I don’t think there’s a right way to do it, just a right way to do it in the context of your own family.

  7. For some additional thoughts on how to help kids through tragedy, see: for a somewhat related discussion see:
    This Q & A is part of an ongoing series entitled Everyday Parenting that is published weekly in the online Ann Arbor news. The columnist is an international expert in child development- a psychoanalyst who has also founded a therapeutic preschool. She’s amazing!

  8. @T my kids are younger than 9, but I really feel like the age I am now (mid-30s) means that I can identify with all of the victims. I have kids, I have loved ones or neighbors or friends in their 30s and 40s and 70s and older.

  9. My daughter has no idea – but she’s at school right now for the first time all week, so I guess she might hear about it there. That thought hadn’t occurred to me until I read T.’s post, Yikes. I will continue reading here to continue to reap the collective wisdom of this wonderful group.Sharon, I’m so sorry this struck so close to home. Are you ok?

  10. Sharon I hope you’re feeling okay too.I said pretty much the same thing as you Moxie. My feeling is that my son is old enough to play Star Wars and shoot laser guns at people, so he’s old enough for a very matter-of-fact, not too emotional description if he asks.
    He did, ’cause he heard it on the radio. I do have to say though that one reason we don’t have or watch television news (my husband and I pick stuff up online and we do have the radio on at certain times of day) is that I find it overwhelming in just these situations.
    The images are graphic, the commentary emotional, and the constant input makes it seem like that’s all that ever happens.
    So that’s kind of our first line of defense. I don’t want my child to grow up completely out of the loop, but while he’s small I just don’t invite all that into the house…and I know if it were, I myself would be watching it!

  11. @ Sharon: “Say what’s true and then take a breath and wait.” Great advice anytime.And thanks, Moxie, for the reminder about what Mr. Rogers said. Wise man.
    Also saw a good essay about this today on Motherlode today ( A good reminder to keep things in perspective – for myself and my family. As someone who feels these kinds of things deeply and has to watch my own absorptions/obsessions with it, all of this is helpful to think about.
    Thanks all.

  12. Well, Sharon@proactiveparenting is lucky I never realized she lived in Tucson, since I probably would have been camped out on her doorstep, all stalker-like…Anyway, my kids knew something was up because we’re right by the hospital and they heard all the sirens and helicopters. The three year old was easy – some people got hurt and went to the hospital for help. Left it at that.
    The almost six year old was trickier and here’s why: since starting kindergarten he’s come home playing ‘shooting’ games. He’s not getting that from us and I know it’s pretty typical boy behavior, but I can reasonably expect that half, if not more, of his friends are growing up with guns in their homes. For me, it became a fine line of not wanting to scare him, but wanting him to understand the very real consequences of guns. They’re not toys, we don’t play games where we pretend to shoot people. I ended up just explaining it simply…someone’s head was sick and he took a gun and used it to hurt people and some of them died. We don’t watch the news and I didn’t show him the paper so he didn’t get any graphics. We ended up talking more about guns, and it was really the first time he connected a gun with bullets with hurting people.
    Even if I had tried to avoid the actual shooting, because of our location – right by the hospital, and McKale Center, we spent two days with helicopters over our house for the security detail, and the streets around us were blocked off yesterday, so I would have been stuck explaining at that point. I ended up being glad there was some perspective for Max so that he saw the police presence as security rather than a threat.

  13. Thanks to all of you who wondered if I was okay. Yes, I’m fine.A friend and I went, for 5 minutes, to the little girls funeral location today to see the 911 Flag. There were many looking at the Flag, and many there for the funeral.
    As I was walking across the street a mom and her 3 kids were walking next to me. The mom said, “My son shared a desk with her at school. And my daughter was playing with her on Friday.”
    I was speechless. Then, I noticed that the boy was on the verge of tears. It was too much for him, and yet he wanted to be there.
    Out of my mouth fell the words, “Well, then I guess you have memories that no one else has, don’t you?” He looked at me and said, “Yes, I guess I do.” I said, “Then you’re lucky to have those memories aren’t you?”
    He looked a bit relieved, he seemed to be saying with his eyes, “memories, I can wrap my heart around that!”
    Believe me, those words weren’t planned, I had no idea I was going to see the flag when I woke up this morning, it just happened. I had no idea I would run into those kids. I was taken by surprise by the moment, just like all of you are when your kids ask you a “big” question.
    Like I said this morning, I stayed in the moment, paid attention to the child, looked at his face, and trusted my intuition. I felt like I was being cheap with my words. I felt like I should say more, but I stopped and waited. Because I waited, I was able to notice that those few words were all the boy could take. He was emotionally full. I’m glad I stopped.
    What can any of us do in situations like these? All we can do is stay centered, pay attention to those who are really affected by this tragedy, and try, if possible to give them a bit of what they need. Our conscious mind doesn’t know what they need, but our intuition does. I’m just saying…
    Oh, and no stalkers please, that scares me! LOL!

  14. We watched some Tucson coverage but DD (8.5) was oblivious. I tried to see if she was upset by it but she didn’t want to talk about it. While she is very sensitive, it doesn’t seem to translate to strangers or the news. The death of the 9 year old just tore. me. up.I’ve done the thing before where you talk about the helpers, usually when pulling over to let fire/police/ambulance pass by. This is actually very well tolerated by DD and seems to be comforting in an all-encompassing way. I was the opposite as a child, though. I wasn’t able to focus on the helpers making it better–I was stuck on the bad things that happen that nobody can STOP. Tamping this down is an ongoing part of my adult life.

  15. Here is what our first lady said in an open letter to parents about the events in Tucson.”Echoing themes that her husband touched upon in his speech at the memorial service on Wednesday, Mrs. Obama said parents could teach their children to be opened minded even with people whose opinions they don’t share.
    ‘We can teach them the value of tolerance – the practice of assuming the best, rather than the worst, about those around us,’ she wrote. ‘We can teach them to give others the benefit of the doubt, particularly those with whom they disagree.'”
    Maybe that will help too.

  16. @ExpatMummy- So glad your house was spared and that you have somewhere safe to regroup. You are certainly fortunate, but you may not be totally unscathed. We had a tornado tear through our neighborhood last summer which is very unusual for our part of the country. We watched the funnel cloud approach and ran for the basement. When we emerged we’d lost a window and and interior door to the storm, but those were relatively quickly fixed. What was really hard to take was the loss of literally hundreds of trees in our small neighborhood Our landscape was utterly changed in a matter of minutes.We felt very lucky, because amazingly no people were injured in the storm. The only loss of life was, sadly, some cattle who did not survive a barn collapse. But all in all, it could have been so much worse. And yet we were all, kids and adults, really shaken up by the event and saddened by all the changes.
    I think in a situation like yours or ours, you spend so much time telling yourself that you’re one of the lucky ones, that you can start to feel that it’s wrong to grieve. That it’s somehow selfish to acknowledge your emotional losses when so many others have lost so much more. And, certainly, it’s healthy to keep things in perspective and focus your energy on helping those who need it. But it’s important to allow yourself to be sad, too.
    It was really hard for my almost 9 year old to look out the window every day and not see the trees he grew up with. He shed a lot of tears over it. But I think all that crying helped him deal with a really big change and his first taste of the power of natural world.
    I’m not sure how much your landscape will have changed, but give yourselves permission to mourn your losses, even though you’re the “lucky ones.”

  17. We live in Brisbane and the river rose to within two houses of ours. We came away from the situation unscathed (lucky for us) and were fortunate to have family in another part of Australia to go to. We decided to take the kids (3.5 and 9 months) and ‘get out of Dodge’, just to be on the safe side.Our eldest is a little out of sorts and keeps asking to go home to his own bed, which we’ll do shortly but too young to fully understand what’s happened. We’ve tried to explain a bit without alarming him but, with us watching the news to try and stay in the loop, he’s obviously picked up more than we thought. All we can do, I suppose, is try to allay his fears. Many of the places we frequent are and/or have been under water so we’ll be explaining things repeatedly I’d imagine.
    Not quite sure how to manage his questions otherwise – although I do like @Sharon’s suggestion of taking a breath and then waiting.

  18. For those of you in the states, it might be hard to imagine the sheer vastness of the flooding across the eastern seabord of Australia. Between Christmas and New Year, an area the size of France and Germany combined was flooded. That has grown dramatically in Queensland, right down to the capital city (Brisbane), into New South Wales and also in Victoria. It’s even flooded in the back of beyond in the desert at Broken Hill for crying out loud. The irony is that the flooding rains have come after eleven years of drought and the the western seabord is still in a horrendous drought.Anyway, focusing on the helpers is a great way to put a handle on the issue which a child can then grasp. Today, over TWELVE THOUSAND volunteers turned up in the streets of Brisbane and Ipswich to clean up. I don’t live in Brisbane (live in Canberra further south) but I could take my five year old to a stadium and show him how many seats you would need to fill for twelve thousand people. His eyes popped. I do let him listen to the stories on the TV about perfect strangers walking into flooded homes with brooms and spades and hoses, asking the homeowner what needs to be done, and doing it.
    The deaths are harder, especially as many of the people were in their homes or cars and were swept away. I try and keep those details from my son, but not that fact that people died. As a previous poster said about the grocery store, I need my son to still belive that home is a safe place. If he knew that children had been killed because the inland tsunami wiped their house of the face of the earth and their bodies found 80km away, I think he would dwell on it.
    The situation in Arizona just horrifies me.

  19. My almost 5 yo son saw me reading about the Arizona shooting. He asked what I was looking at, who the person was. He also asked why I looked upset, which is not something he usually asks. I gave him short facts and tried to answer his questions, though my answer often was I don’t know. I told him the shooter’s brain didn’t work right, that he didn’t have a healthy brain. He asked why. I don’t know. He asked why the man had a gun. I told him that the man bought one. My son thought the man shouldn’t have a gun and that he should be put in a cage. *smirk* He asked who the little girl was (saw a picture), and I told him the man shot several people, including the girl. He asked if the girl was OK, and I told him the girl died. He asked why. Yeah, easy stuff, right? :(I saw his questions as an opportunity to talk about how everyone should be allowed to have their own opinions and how hurting is wrong. Doesn’t make it easy, but at least it gives it purpose.

  20. What I want to know is how do we talk about foreign tragedies without diminishing the local ones?There has been a lot of coverage about the floods in Queensland, where last I checked the death toll was estimated at about 55. But there was little or no coverage of the flooding in Pakistan just a few months ago when nearly 1000 people dies, and many more left in unsafe, unsanitary conditions.
    We don’t want any news or read any newspapers in out house, so my boys haven’t seen images of any of these events. I try to explain these issues using fictional scenarios (from TV shows or movies) and will keep it that way until I’m sure Possum can work through the real stuff (he is Autistic and finds understanding people and the world hard enough already).

  21. I often not talk about tragedy. It just makes me so sad. I even recall all the sad things that happened to me when it is been discussed. But as what they’ve said, we have to move on. Leave every unnecessary thing in the past as we can’t turn the time back to when the it happened.

  22. Well, to be honest, I often don’t tell my kids anything! They are now 9 and 11. The 11 year old happened to see the front page of the Times the day after the Arizona shooting, so I did give him the basics- more or less what Moxie said to her kids- ecept I did not tell him that one of the victims was a child . I did not say anything to my just-turned 8 year old at all. I typically don’t watch the news on TV, and really monitor the radio when they are in the car, so generally they are unaware of the terrible things that happen in the world. I recall that in the days just after 9/11, when my sister and I both had 2 year olds, my sister felt the “need” to tell the 2 year old that some bad men had crashed planes into the big buildings – I was shocked and did not tell my son anything. He is more or less aware of the events now, at age 11, though we do not dwell on them. Sometimes I stop and think “hmmm- should I be telling them more?” But then I stop myself- soon enough they will be unable to escape being aware.

  23. You did the right thing. I think telling that tragedy to your kid might confuse and make him so conscious about his surroundings. Kids must enjoy their years, telling them scary things might limit their enjoyment because these might limit them to explore things on their own.

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