How to Talk to Kids When Bad Things Happen

Written in collaboration by JFS Staff Carey Nottingham, LPC, Jeffrey Tepper, LCSW, & Gustavo Barcenas, Ph.D., LPC, RPT

It is with deep sadness and compassion that we extend our thoughts and prayers to each of you. The terrifying event at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville has touched the hearts of the Dallas Jewish community and the community at large, worldwide.  

In spite of the lengths parents and teachers go to safeguard our community’s children from tragedy, their lives are regularly and inextricably touched by trauma.  Rather than insulating children from the knowledge of violence and tragedy, this can be an opportunity to help children feel safer and more secure in an uncertain world.  Although it may seem difficult to broach such scary topics, children often know when something bad or frightening has happened and may experience a range of unsettling feelings as a result. 

We would like to address the complexities of how to talk with children about the alarming crisis that occurred during Shabbat or other events in the future. We wish the world were predictable and safe and that there was no need to hold such discussions with children; however, the world we are given is rarely predictable. Giving children a safe and supportive means of expressing their thoughts and feelings, with a trusted adult, is vital to their mental health and well-being.  Children have an amazing ability to arrive at their own conclusions about why adults are silent or upset and it often leaves them feeling afraid.  We, therefore, want to take this opportunity to provide some general guidelines and tips for speaking with your children in an age-appropriate way based on each child’s developmental stage and history.

Prepare for the Discussion
  • Think about what you would like to say: To make the discussion easier, you may want to write it down and/or rehearse it.
  • Find a quiet time to broach the subject: A time and place where the children can be the focus of attention.

Start the Conversation
  • Invite the child into the discussion:  Let your child know that there was an incident at a synagogue outside Dallas and Listen.  You might ask an older child (ages 7/8+) to share with you what they already know by saying “I wonder what you may have heard about this?” …and then Listen and Listen some more.
  • Validate and reflect the child’s feelings:  All emotions are healthy.  It is okay for the child to be angry…scared…confused…sad… The very first thing is to reflect and validate your child’s feelings.  This can be one of the most important ways to communicate that you understand.  You can say, “you’re really confused (scared, upset, angry, etc…) right now.”  You can share with your child that you and other adults also have strong feelings about what took place. Modeling emotional regulation is a powerful tool: children learn through observation. They will learn that even though you are upset, you can calm yourself and continue on.
  • Reassure the child: Reassure your child that they are safe while projecting a sense of confidence and calmness.  Remind them of some of the people in their lives who keep them safe and then ask them who else they can think of that keeps them safe.  You can say, “You’re really worried something bad will happen.  You are safe; mommy and daddy are here to keep you safe.  We will do everything we know how to do to keep you safe.”  “Tell me who keeps you safe when you are at school, on the playground, in the cafeteria, in the gym, etc.?” or “Who in the afterschool program keeps you safe?”  or “Tell me who keeps you safe in Sunday school?”  “Who keeps you safe when you are at the store, at the library, etc…(teachers, librarians, family, firemen, crossing guards…).”
  • Reinforce safety: Ask your child to recall their safety drills at school for fires and/or earthquakes, etc… (some have had Active Shooter Drills) You can say, ask, “How does your teacher keep you safe during a drill at school?” and “How do you help keep yourself safe during the drills at school?”  Does your family practice evacuation procedures at home in case of fire?  You could ask, “How does mommy/daddy keep you safe in case there’s a fire?” and “How do you help keep yourself safe during “the drill”?  “What can you do when you feel unsafe?” or “What can you do to help yourself feel safe?” Use this time as an opportunity to go over safety procedures in your home.
  • Be alert: You can help children identify things they would want to be aware of and encourage them to reach out to an adult or person of authority if they see or hear something that is worrisome.  “What can you do if you see someone in the hallways or on the playground at school who shouldn’t be there?” etc…
  • Be truthful: Speak about what you know without guesses, beliefs, or attempts to minimize or make sense of a senseless act or random tragedy in a way that they can understand.  When children ask why something bad happened or why someone did something unexplainable, first reflect, “You really wish you could understand why or how” or “You really want to know why” and then you can say, “I don’t know, (insert term of endearment).”  It is always okay to say that you do not know, because giving an explanation from an adult perspective can be confusing and scary for children.
Be Approachable
  • Things they can know for sure: Reassure your child that even when they do not understand, even when things are unpredictable or scary, they can know for certain that you are available to talk with them any time and to answer any questions about this topic or others.  Most of all, they can be sure that they are loved.
Take Care of You 
  • Turn off the news: It is important to limit the information children are exposed to in the news. It is also ok for you, as a parent, to have a break from the news. 
  • Engage in physical activity: This may be hard or difficult because during stressful times, we tend to do the opposite. However, physical activity is not only positive for our mind and body, but also, it can be an opportunity for the family to have a break away from the news. For example, go for a walk or play outside with your children.
  • Do something you all enjoy: During stressful times, it is important to model to children that you are still able to find moments of connection as a family. Do something that could lift your spirits such as, cooking together, doing crafts, watching something light-hearted or funny, etc.

As always, please know that all of us at Jewish Family Service of Greater Dallas are here for the community to provide support and counseling to any individual and family, as well as visit any school or group that could benefit from such a discussion. Please call (972) 437-9950 today if you need help.

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