Linda Lewis Griffith

How to talk to children about a disaster

Police go through the parking lot of Excel Industries in Hesston, Kan., on Thursday, where a gunman killed several people and wounded dozens more, officials said.
Police go through the parking lot of Excel Industries in Hesston, Kan., on Thursday, where a gunman killed several people and wounded dozens more, officials said. The Wichita Eagle via Associated Press

When children learn disturbing news, it’s natural that they turn to their parents to make sense of the horrific events.

But Mom and Dad often feel inadequate when it comes to navigating emotional trauma. Below are suggestions for dealing with crises shown in the media. There are no right or wrong answers. The key is to be flexible and respond to whatever need they might have.

▪  Be calm. Children take their cues from their parents. If they think Mom and Dad are in control, they’ll feel safer, too. Even if you’re inwardly unsettled by what’s happened, try to put on a good front for the kids.

▪  Be ready at any time. The conversation can come out of the blue. Don’t be startled if they bring up the topic while you’re walking the dog or between pushes on the swing.

▪  Learn what they know. An open-ended statement, such as “Tell me what you’ve heard about that,” lets you know where to start. It also gives you a chance to correct any misinformation and clear up possible confusions.

▪  Ask a follow-up question. Encourage discussion by saying, “What do you think about that?” or, “What would make that better?” You’ll demonstrate that you’re available for whatever conversations they want to have.

▪  Consider children’s ages. Even preschoolers will hear about major crises. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends telling them what happened in very simple terms. School-age kids have an understanding of terrorist attacks, wars and natural disasters, and they’re going to discuss them with their peers. Bring up the topic, provide relevant information, then give them a chance to share their thoughts. Older children will learn the news from a wide variety of sources. Watch news programs together and discuss what you see.

▪  Be brief. Don’t overtalk. Answer only what they’ve asked for. If they want more information, you can provide it.

▪  Keep politics out of the picture. Now is not the time to pontificate about the government or make comments about an opposing group. Save your soapbox for a later date.

▪  Limit exposure to news. The news creates unnecessary stress for young children. They’re unable to separate the headlines from their daily lives. They worry that events on the other side of the globe are happening outside their door. Do them a favor and turn off the news when they’re in the room.

▪  Create a safe environment. Remind children often that they are safe and protected in their home. Give them concrete examples. For instance, show how you lock the doors to keep out burglars.

▪  Watch for signs that children aren’t coping well. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, youngsters may have sleep disturbances or nightmares. They might complain of physical symptoms, such as headaches, loss of appetite or generally feeling unwell. They may act immature or become less patient or more demanding. They can also experience sadness, depression, anxiety or fears.

Linda Lewis Griffith’s column is special to The Tribune. She is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit