Talking with Children about Tragic Events

Donna Schuurman, EdD, FT
Executive Director
The Dougy Center for Grieving Children

The 12th anniversary of September 11, 2013

As we mark the tragic events of September 11th on the 12th anniversary, our thoughts are with all whose loved ones were senselessly killed in New York City, at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

The recent Boston Marathon bombings join the long and growing list of large-scale attacks and murders on American soil. We’re justified in asking how these collective events will influence the psyches of our youth, and just what, exactly, to say to them.

What do we tell our children? How do we reassure them of their own safety?

At The Dougy Center in Portland, Oregon, we’ve provided grief support groups for children, teens, young adults and their parents or adult caregivers since 1982. In 1988 we started our first “Healing After a Violent Death or Murder” group, and sadly, have seen the numbers of children and youth impacted by violent death grow over these decades. We were called in to respond in communities after the Thurston High school murders, following 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Newtown, Connecticut murders, and to countless local and national man-made tragedies where children died, witnessed murders, or lost their own family members to violence. We’ve advised the FBI’s Rapid Deployment Team and the National Transportation Safety Board’s Family Assistance Program, two important programs detailing the best practices and procedures for responding to the needs of children and families reeling from the deaths of loved ones in mass casualties.

Based on our experience, here are some things for adults to keep in mind as you struggle with how to talk with children following these tragic events:

1. Don’t project your fears onto your children. They take their cues from the adults around them.

You can’t hear the news about children being murdered without thinking about how you’d feel if they were your children, your grandchildren, your neighbors. The outpouring of care and empathy for the families who lost loved ones will be powerful, and…we all know it could have been our friends, our child, our family members who died or were injured.

Identifying with the senselessness and randomness makes us all feel more vulnerable. But we should remember that children don’t always see things the same way that adults do, and it won’t be helpful to them for us to fall apart. They need to see that we care, that we feel terrible about this tragedy, and that we will do everything we can to keep them safe. They will take their cues from our behavior.

It’s okay to show emotion. We ought to model to children that feeling sad and upset is normal after tragedies. But we don’t want to overwhelm them with our emotions, or put them in the position of having to ‘parent’ the adults around them. Make sure you also model taking care of yourself, by sharing with trusted and supportive adult friends, eating (and drinking) healthfully. 

2. Try to limit their access to the recurring news and exposure to the tragedy over and over.

Over-exposure to the graphic and emotional news can be overwhelming for children. Some children who repeatedly watched the footage of planes crashing into the towers on 9/11 thought it was happening again and again. Some children (and some adults) may have difficulty getting graphic scenes and images out of their minds. Too much exposure can fuel their fear, so don’t let them sit and watch the news over and over. Better yet, set the example of not doing so yourself as well.

3. Understand that you can’t completely shield them from what happened.

It would be next to impossible to hide these events from children, as much as we wish we could. You might be able to shield your own child in your home, for example, by not turning on (or owning) a television, but you can’t protect your children from hearing about it from other kids. The fact is, they will hear about it, so although they don’t “need” to know about it, pretending we can shield them is magical thinking.

That said, you don’t need to give them more information than they can handle, or more than they’re asking for. A simple, “Did they talk about what happened in _____ today at school?” would be a good starter. They need to know that you’re not trying to hide the truth from them, that you’re open to talking about it, but that you’re also not forcing them to do so.

4. Model truth-telling and build trust with your children by letting them hear things, even hard things, from you directly.

Eight days after the 9/11 attacks, I was meeting in small groups with pre-school workers in New York City, talking about how to respond to the young children in their care about the events. A man asked to speak to me privately after one of the trainings, and asked for my advice around his 7-year-old daughter. For the last week, since September 12th, she had been having stomachaches and difficulty sleeping. He said it was not tied to the events of 9/11 because “we don’t have a television.” As his story unfolded it was evident that he did not want to have to explain to his child why people would do such horrible things, a normal dilemma that we face as parents and adults. This child was experiencing physical reactions, as it turned out, not primarily because of her reaction to the events of 9/11, but because she was unable to share her fears and concerns and questions in her own home, faced with her parents’ denial.

Here are some principles to keep in mind as you talk with children:

1. There is no one typical reaction one can or should expect from children.

Their responses will vary all over the map, from seeming disinterest to nightmares, eating issues and panic attacks. How any specific child will respond will depend on their age, previous experience with death and loss, their personality style. (Fearful children will tend to worry; quiet children may keep their feelings to themselves; those who want to appear unfazed may evidence a sense of bravado or lack of caring). Of course, children directly affected – those who had a family member die; those who witnessed the carnage; those who had friends die – will tend to have longer-term reactions and needs. Watch for changes in behavior, or concerning trends. While it would be normal to have heightened anxiety and sleeplessness, any concerning behavior or troubling symptoms should be taken seriously, and if warranted, professional help sought.

2. Many children will have an increased sense of fear about their safety.

Understandably. So will many adults. After a shooting at an Oregon mall in December 2012, the news outlets were filled with people who said they’d never take their children there again. Others said they’d return as soon as it opened in order to support the stores and employees who had experienced the traumatic events, and whose livelihoods were going to suffer as a result of the several day closure. Some runners in the Boston Marathon vowed to return; others said they would never do so again.

While we can’t guarantee to our children that nothing bad will ever happen to them, we can provide assurance that these events are relatively rare, and that we will do everything we can to keep them safe. Of course, the parents of the children at Sandy Hook Elementary School could never have imagined or foreseen the day that unfolded for their children. We’ve had to digest the reality that children in school, shoppers at a mall, runners in a marathon, have all been targeted. What makes these murders even more terrifying is that they highlight not only that it can happen anywhere, but that it has happened, in several pretty normal, ordinarily safe places.

3. Children want, need, and deserve the truth.

In over 30 years of providing grief support to thousands of children and teens at The Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families, we have never heard a child say, “I’m glad I was lied to.” Many, however, struggle with anger and lack of trust toward parents or other adults who lied to them. When we don’t tell the truth, they learn that we cannot be trusted. As difficult as it can be at times, and as horrendous as the truth may be, children want, need, and deserve the truth.

As we cope with trying to come to terms with the horror and terror of these events, how to explain such things to our children and keep them safe, let us not forget the families and friends of those killed. They have long, difficult and lonely journeys ahead. Their lives truly will never be the same. They need our support, not just in the initial days of shock and disbelief, but long-term, long after the funerals are over, the tuna casseroles consumed, and the rest of the world has moved on.