How to talk to kids about tragedy


When tragedy strikes it’s hard to know how to speak to the ones we hold dear. In light of the Edmonton attack Sept. 30 and the Las Vegas massacre Oct. 1, many may be left searching for answers.

With the advent of social media, it’s hard to avoid the updates and imagery of these events, and even the youngest among us may be exposed to them. How does one look into the face of a child and explain that bad things do happen, and explain how to process that?

Marsha Otuka, of Cornerstone Psychological Centre in Airdrie, said the first step is for parents to be in touch with their own issues.

“Before we can approach our kids to talk with them about these tragedies, we have to be clear on how we’re feeling and where we’re at,” she said.

Otuka said the next step is to normalize any feelings of fear or anxiety the child might have in order to help them empathize with those affected. She added, it’s useful for parents to have a dialogue with each other about how they’re going to approach their kids, especially in co-parenting households.

“(Next) would be to understand that information sharing is age-appropriate and emotionally-appropriate,” Otuka said.

Dr. Michelle Soucy Dahl, a private practitioning child psychologist serving Airdrie and the surrounding area, said it’s important for parents to provide honest answers while simultaneously creating a sense of security and comfort for their children.

“Being open to all questions and for parents to be able to acknowledge that, ‘no, we don’t have all the answers and that sometimes things don’t make sense,’” she said.

Finding the balance between providing enough information so children can understand what happened without provoking further fear or insecurity is vital, Dahl said.

She recommends parents monitor their child’s social media usage and news intake after events such as those in Edmonton and Las Vegas.

“We want kids to develop those skills about what should they be observing, how much information do they want to know, how are they affected,” Dahl said.

She added parents should be aware of children with anxiety because too much information can be detrimental to anxious kids.

“We want to be able to put (the situation) in context and limit how much access children have to some of those images,” Dahl said. “So they’re not being overly negatively impacted.”

She said if warning signs, such as sleep deprivation, elevated anxiety or an increased interest in certain events becomes present parents should seek outside help.

Chris Pawluk, lead psychologist for Rocky View Schools, said crisis response protocols are in place for any event that may lead to significant trauma for students.

He said schools take into account various factors when addressing tragic situations. According to Pawluck, physical proximity, emotional proximity and the intensity of the event are all taken into account when addressing students.

“It depends on the developmental level of the students and exactly what the goal of the discussion is,” Pawluck said.

Students are typically encouraged to reach out to natural supports in their life such as parents and friends.

“A good rule of thumb is to answer questions students have, but not to provide much unasked-for detail,” Pawluck said.

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