Explaining tragic events to children

Parents might want to protect their children from distressing news stories, however, ignoring such topics might leave children feeling frightened and lost, counsellor Karen Decelis says
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As adults we are constantly exposed to tragic news items on the media. In the past months, we heard of various international natural disasters as well as local murders and accidents, all of which might affect people negatively.

Children are as exposed to these tragedies as adults. Each will react differently to these incidents depending on their developmental status and characteristics.

Children are today exposed to various sources of information such as talking to friends at school, seeing reels on Instagram or watching videos on TikTok. It is, therefore, important that after a tragedy occurs, parents keep an eye out for their children’s behaviour.

It is understandable that parents might want to protect their children from such horrible topics. However, ignoring such topics might leave children feeling frightened and lost, which might affect their well-being.

Signs that children might be negatively impacted include:

▪ Physical complaints: children feeling more tired than usual, having headaches or stomach pains;

▪ Change in sleep patterns: difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, as well as suffering from nightmares and struggling to get up;

▪ Emotional and behavioural changes: children might be more irritable, clingier than usual or regress socially. They might also experience anxiety, sadness or fear.

Some children (just like some adults) might fear that the tragedies they see on the news or on social media will happen to them. Therefore, if they see an earthquake in Turkey and Syria, they might fear this will happen in Malta. If they see a woman being killed by a car, they might worry this will happen to them or someone they love.

“Some children (just like some adults) might fear that the tragedies they see on the news or on social media will happen to them”

While children’s reactions reflect their developmental status, some of their responses might be parallel to parents’ reactions. Children tend to take cues from their parents about fear and safety. If parents tend to be over-worried or irritable, this might lead to the children feeling unsafe. It is okay if parents feel anxious and scared, as these are natural responses to difficult situations. But it is advisable that parents don’t share such anxieties with young children.

Parents do not need to have all the answers. Some children might ask questions which one would not have the response to. Parents can think things through together. Children do not need someone with all the answers, they need emotional support and empathy.  

It is understandable that caregivers might struggle to deal with their children’s feelings about these tragedies. However, it is crucial that they help them process and make sense of the information they have. Parents or guardians are the people who know their children best, so it is important to analyse the child’s character and see what is best for them.

Suggestions for parents

Here are some tips for parents when it comes to dealing with such difficult topics.

1. Open the discussion

It might be useful to ask the children what they know and how it makes them feel. By doing this, you can sense what they have seen, heard and understood and then continue the conversation in an age-appropriate manner.

2. Accept that as a parent, you might not have the perfect answer

Parents might say things that do not reassure their children. It is ok to not know what to say as the topic at hand is a complicated one.

3. Accept your child’s reaction

Children are different. Some children will want to talk about their feelings, while some will not. It is important to emphasise that even if they don’t want to speak at that precise moment, the parents will always be available to talk to.

4. Avoid telling lies

Parents might instinctively want to lie to protect their children’s feelings. However, this is not a good idea as the children might find out the truth elsewhere and then feel they cannot trust their parents. Caregivers should say what is contextually important for the child to know. Avoid unnecessary details and showing them graphic pictures.

5. Reassure their feelings

Children need to feel understood. Explain to them that it is ok that they are scared or sad. Do not dismiss their feelings or tell them that they are wrong in feeling a certain way. Reassure them that as their parents, you can provide them with understanding, comfort and safety.

6. Help them to avoid seeing repetitive news

Most children have access to the news through social media on their phone. Parents need to be very aware of this and might want to go through their children’s social media accounts to see what they are watching.

7. Use creative ways to get the children to express themselves

Not all children are able to express themselves through language. Parents might use methods like playing or drawing to help their child show them what they are thinking.

While taking care of children is vital, self-care is the most crucial part of being a parent. One cannot pour from an empty cup. It is important that parents find a good support system, are aware of how the news of natural disasters or local crime is affecting them and work on calming themselves first.

It is also important that where needed, professional help is sought. Some parents can be overwhelmed by a particular situation and may need a safe space to process their thoughts and feelings. Children can also access professional help.

Although there are various international and national difficulties going on, it is important to always be aware of what is in our control, and try and help children deal with their emotions in a safe and calm manner.

Also read this article by Karen Decelis, Explaining the War to a Child. For more Child stories, follow this link.

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