How to discuss difficult news with your child

When children are exposed to news of violent and tragic events, such as natural disasters or mass shootings, they may start to worry that something similar could happen to them or their loved ones. By openly discussing these events and outlining the family’s emergency preparedness plan, parents can alleviate their child’s concerns and model healthy coping strategies.

Start a dialogue
While some parents may want to shield their children from upsetting news, the best approach is a proactive one, says Mark De Antonio, MD, director, Inpatient Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Services, Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA. “Whether through friends, teachers, TV or social media, children will inevitably be exposed to sad or disturbing news,” says Dr. De Antonio. “The best way to prevent unnecessary or unusual anxiety is to start the conversation.”

Ask children what they have heard about recent events and how they feel about it. Then, depending on their response and maturity level, discuss the relevant facts and answer their questions honestly. “One effective way parents can reassure their children is by emphasizing the family’s preparedness plan,” Dr. De Antonio says. “For example, discuss who will pick them up from school in case of an emergency, go through your home emergency kit together or explain how your home is earthquake proof.”

Parent modeling

“Parents can play a very important role in how their children cope with bad news,” Dr. De Antonio says. “Children pick up on how their parents respond to different situations, and if their parents avoid certain topics, they will too.” Children may think that they are not allowed to discuss certain issues, or that expressing their concerns will make them look weak or irrational. As a result, they may misunderstand how an event unfolded or overestimate what is wrong. Their internalized worries and anxieties may manifest in other ways later. “All of a sudden, the child may refuse to go to school, not want to play outside or develop unusual fears and phobias,” Dr. De Antonio says.

Conversation tips

  • Age-appropriate language: Use words your child can understand and speak in a calm, gentle voice.
  • Reassuring body language: Get down to your child’s eye level and hold his/her hand.
  • Sharing acts of kindness: Hearing stories of strangers helping each other or community philanthropy efforts can be uplifting.
  • Meaningful ways to cope: Ask if your child wants to do something special for those affected by tragedy, such as hosting a lemonade stand to collect money for earthquake victims or writing letters of support.

When to seek help
Parents can usually address a child’s concerns through honest, supportive dialogue. However, if a child’s anxiety persists and starts to impair his/her daily functioning, additional support may be recommended. “If a child’s concerns result in refusal to attend school, fear of outdoor activities, trouble sleeping, or difficulty focusing in school, schedule an appointment with your child’s pediatrician,” says Dr. De Antonio. A pediatrician will conduct a general health assessment and refer your child to the appropriate mental health specialist, if necessary.

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