How Do Parents Talk To Children After A Tragic Event?

The most recent tragedy to impact children and adults was a shooting in Jersey City, New Jersey. Reports from bystanders and citizens caught in the middle of the incident indicate that there was so much gunfire that some people in their homes were laying on their floors to avoid being injured.

One person said that it sounded as though there was a war going on in his residential neighborhood. The events unfolded about noon, a time when children were in school. Officials called for a mandatory ‘lock down’ of 43 schools in the city. Children were not allowed to go home and parents weren’t allowed to retrieve their children either.

While exchanges of bullets were taking place, undoubtedly the children as well as staff could hear the sounds of gunfire. Children didn’t know if they would be OK and parents had no idea of the status of their children either. Save today’s cell phone technology, everyone would be in the dark, unaware, scared and confused about the terror surrounding them.

This type of situation was most certainly trauma-inducing for both parent and child. However, with children’s well-being primary, parents would have to help. What does a parent say to a child after tragic events? Here are a few tips to make conversations a little easier.

  • The first thing is figure out what you want to say. Practice in your head or in the mirror or with another adult.
  • Choose a quiet moment to talk. It may be after dinner if that is when your child has your undivided attention.
  • Find out what your child already knows. There may have been news coverage or your child heard talk from people around him or her. Ask:”What have you heard about this?” Then listen.
  • Share your feelings with your child. Acknowledging your feelings with your child allows your child freedom to share his or her feelings, believing that it’s OK to feel. Remaining calm in the aftermath informs your child that even in tough times, you can keep it together. Be a role model.
  • Be truthful. Lay out the facts at an age appropriate level. No graphic details, but use words your child understands. For younger children, if someone died, you may need to explain what death is[like no longer hungry, hurting, thirsty; we won’t see them again, but we can always keep them in our memories] Sometimes it is just fine to say, “I don’t know.” That is the truth, because we don’t know everything. If your child asks, ” WHY DID THOSE BAD PEOPLE DO THIS?” say, “I DON’T KNOW.”
  • Most of all, reassure. When the conversation is almost over, reassure your children that you will always do whatever you can to keep them safe. Let them know that they can always come to you if they have any more questions or just want to talk. Finally, tell them that you love them.


Take care of you

  • Turn off the news. Just unnecessary reminders.
  • Take a little break. Time out for yourself.
  • Get physical. Do something that will get your blood flowing-some movement.
  • Do something that will lighten your mood and lift your spirits. Include the entire family. A game of Twister or Uno. Toss a ball around, Crochet.

These strategies are aimed at you making your children feel well, and help them through the tragic event. Taking care of yourself may lead to you seeking help from another adult. If there is no one to talk to, telephone, in person, or if that doesn’t work and you are feeling stuck, seek professional help. If you aren’t well, your children won’t be either. Helping yourself is helping your children.

As adults, we sometimes need help processing events, just as your children are helped by you. It’s OK and may just be the best thing for the entire family’s wellness.  To find a mental health professional in your area, visit the Psychologist Locator.

Useful resources.

Explaining the News to Our Kids –

The Road to Resilience –

Disaster Distress Hotline –

Children & Grief: Guidance and Support Resources –


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