Talking With Children About Tragedy and Loss

Talking With Children About Tragedy and Loss

Sex,God, death – these are some of those heavy duty topics that kids as young as four bring up that make us squirm and say, “oh no here they go again”.   They’re some of the biggies that make us want to shut down, change the subject, walk out of the room.  In plain honesty, we get uncomfortable.  We’re not sure what to say, how much to say and we’d rather avoid at all costs.  School, tests, homework, friends, playtime, lunch – now these are the familiar, everyday comfortable things to discuss.

But we know that life ain’t that easy and sometimes there are really bad biggies that rear their ugly heads.  They can’t be hammered down; they will just pop back up and must be dealt with.  As they say, S — happens and we’re called upon as parents, teachers, caring adults to help our children deal when tragedy strikes.

How do we talk to kids about loss and tragedy?

  1. First and foremost, we must be aware of our own upset, sadness and discomfort.  Kids take their emotional cues from us.  How do we deal with our feelings?  We are their role models for coping.
  2. We must find out what they know about the situation.  And then we need to explain in an age-appropriate manner.  We need to be brief and simple and not overload them with too much detail and information.   We must listen to their questions and answer to the point with honest information.
  3. We need to be great listeners and accept and acknowledge their feelings.  That means allowing for all feelings, even if it makes us uncomfortable to hear our kids express those negative ones of pain and anger, frustration and angst.  There is nothing that lightens the heaviness of grief than giving expression to it.   We want to encourage their attempts to communicate and be receptive and non-judgmental to them. Feeling understood promotes feelings of connection.   During critical times, connection is what’s desperately needed to keep us all grounded.
  4. Not all children are comfortable talking.  For some it’s easier to express their thoughts and feelings through activities.  We can provide creative outlets such as drawing, writing, reading, playing.
  5. When those really hard questions come up, like why do bad things happen to innocent children, it’s O.K. to say, “I don’t know.” These are the kinds of questions we all struggle with.   Not all questions have answers, which is a universal perennial struggle; trying to live through bad situations without any rational comprehension of why.   Allowing for the questions and talking out all kinds of possible responses can be cathartic.
  6. Be aware of those ‘talkable’ moments.  Watch for them and gently encourage communication by bringing it up.  Through silence, a child can fantasize incorrectly.  The fear of the unknown can be worse than the reality.  So we need to check in and promote discussion or some sort of expression.
  7. Look towards ways of helping.  Discuss what to do.  Brainstorm ideas.  Kids, as all of us, need to feel there’s something in their control to do in a situation that is totally out of anyone’s control.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.’” Mr. Rogers


Thanks for stopping by here.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  How do you handle tough topics with kids or how did your parents handle them with you? 


I’ll be speaking on this topic  Wednesday, March 20th at the Flushing branch of the Queens Library (New York).

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