Parenting with a PhD: Talking to Kids about Tragedies

By Kristen Berthiaume:

Even if you’ve tried to prevent it, your kids have probably heard something about the shootings that occurred overnight Thursday in Aurora, Colorado. If they have, they’re probably pretty confused and disturbed – aren’t we all? Here are some tips for helping your child understand what happened and calming worries she might have about something similar happening to her or someone she loves.

Younger Kids: With kids under 7, its better to limit exposure to information about this kind of tragic event as much as possible. Give your child something to do in a different room while you watch or listen to the news stories and avoid discussing it in front of him. If you suspect he has already heard about the incident or if he brings it up, tell what happened in very simple language. Try giving only the main facts like, “A man brought a gun to a movie theater and hurt some people.” Answer questions but don’t give details.  It isn’t necessary to lie but you don’t need to give your child more information he can handle. Let him express the feelings he’s having and then reassure him that he can trust you and the other adults who care for him to look out for his safety. Then, get him involved in something else so he doesn’t dwell on the issue.

Older Kids: Kids 7 and older are often quite aware of what’s being said on the news and by adults, and may be eager for information. Before you talk about a tragedy like what occurred in Colorado, know your child and her comfort zone. Most kids will need you to give only a few details at a time along with the opportunity to digest and ask questions.  Continue giving only enough information to satisfy curiosity and to help your child deal with the feelings she’s having. Make sure you’re supportive of your child’s feelings, even if they make you uncomfortable or you don’t understand why she feels that way. Talking about your own emotions using age appropriate language will provide comfort, especially when you also tell your child how you’re dealing with those feelings. Don’t tell your child that you can prevent bad things from happening to her – most will know that’s a lie. Do talk about how unlikely it is that she will be hurt or killed in a movie theater. Remind her of all the times she’s gone to the movies without incident. Provide information about safety measures that are in place in your home and in public places that you frequent. Watch for signs you’re your child is becoming upset over the conversation and encourage her to take breaks when that happens. Consider using some of the following strategies to help her calm down:

  • Take deep breaths (cliché, I know, but it really does help)
  • Flex and relax each muscle group in the body one at a time, starting with the face and going all the way to the toes
  • Listen to music
  • Visualize something relaxing and enjoyable, like going to the beach. Think about the sights, sounds, smells, and textures you’d encounter.
  • Shoot hoops, play catch, hit tennis balls, hula hoop, run, or cartwheel. Be active!
  • Come up with some positive self-talk statements your child can use when she needs reassurance. Write them down and keep them somewhere she can find them easily. Some suggestions: “I need to relax,” “I can handle this,” “I am safe,” or “I can get help if I need it.”

Teenagers: Teenagers are generally able to handle most details of a tragedy like the shootings in Aurora; however, it’s better not to force them to talk about it if they don’t seem interested. Let them know that you’re open to discussing it and check-in on how they’re handling things. You might try sharing your own feelings on the matter and see if the discussion takes off from there. Don’t feel like you must have an answer to the question, “Why would someone do that?” should it arise. Teens are able to accept that there are no simple answers to complicated issues. One thing to be prepared for is the different kinds of reactions your teen might have. He may be sad for the loss of life or express anxiety about going to the movies (or other places) for fear that he will be hurt. Many teens will be angry at the injustice of innocent people being hurt and killed. For these reactions, the techniques presented in the “Older Children” section for managing strong emotions should be helpful.

Be aware that some teens will appear apathetic about the occurrence and may even make statements like, “People die all the time.” Remember that this attitude may not reflect how your child truly feels. It’s possible that he’s having a hard time expressing himself, is embarrassed by his feelings, or just wants to express an opposing viewpoint to yours. Whichever explanation is true, letting the discussion happen naturally instead of forcing it will have the best results. Most concerning will be those teens who seem to identify with the shooter or blame the victims. If your teen responds in one of these ways, try not to freak out. In most cases, he is probably testing to see how you’ll take what he says. Teenagers are at a stage of cognitive development when they’re exploring the different ways to look at a situation and, particularly, the ways that their viewpoints might differ from those of their parents. Try to see this reaction as a mental exercise and not as evidence that your child doesn’t care about others. If he seems open to it, gently push him to go further with the discussion. Ask how he might feel if he’d been at the theater that night or if someone he cared about had gotten hurt or killed. Talk about how you would feel. Discuss how the people who witnessed or were injured at the event or whose family members were killed might feel and how their lives might change as a result. Relate this tragedy to significant events your child has experienced, even though they probably will not be as traumatic. Help him remember how he felt at those times. Don’t expect an “Aha!” moment – it might take time for your child to gain perspective.

Certainly, if your teen seems to strongly identify with the shooter in Colorado or expresses pleasure that the man “got revenge,” it is important that he talk with a therapist as soon as possible. Although he may be making such statements for attention, it is also possible that he has had thoughts of hurting himself or others, is feeling like an outside, or wants to get revenge on someone. A mental health professional can assist in determining whether your child is at risk for destructive behavior.

Final Thoughts: Regardless of your child’s age, keep in mind that news shows are geared towards adults and may not be appropriate for kids or teens. If possible, filter the information your child gets by limiting his exposure to media coverage of the tragedy. Be especially mindful about turning off the news if your child seems to become obsessed with learning details about the tragic event. Get him outside, active, and involved in something else to remind him that life is still going on around him. Don’t force your child to go to the movies right away in an attempt to help her “get over it.” With time, most kids who are avoiding movie theaters right now will be drawn back in by something they want to see.

One positive that can come from this kind of tragedy is the opportunity to talk with your child about gun safety. This is a conversation every parent should have regardless of your feelings on gun laws or whether there are guns in your house. The website has several tips for talking with your kids about guns, as well as information for parents on keeping kids safe from gun-related injuries.

If your child is having a great deal of difficulty dealing with a tragedy or is limiting her activities as a result, it would be a good idea to seek counseling. In the case of something like the shootings in Aurora, your child might need only short-term treatment but he will probably feel better faster with some outside assistance. Also, therapy can teach your child coping skills for being resilient in the face of future tragic events. And, remember, if you’re trying to help your child navigate the rough waters of tragedy and loss but find that you’re having a tough time yourself, consider seeking your own help.  You can’t coach your child if you’re barely treading water.

About this column: Send your parenting- and kid-related questions my way and I’ll tell you what I can: Please be aware that email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information so it’s best to keep your questions general. If your question is featured, your name and email will not be published. Submitting a question does not constitute a professional relationship in any way and this column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy. If you feel you’re doing the best you can and still need help, it may be time to bring in a professional. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician to get a referral.

Kristen Berthiaume, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates ( She obtained her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center. She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues: ADHD, learning disorders, social skill deficits, organizational problems, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, and depression. She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her five-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.

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