Through half-shut eyes we tentatively peek at the daily news, fingers crossed that this miraculously will be the day when the most upsetting thing will be an unsolvable crossword clue. Instead, we’re often faced with new tragedies that we struggle to process. If you’re a parent, the mental calculations begin of how, if at all, to inform your child of this news. If you’re a parent in an already grieving family, these calculations become murkier as you consider how to avoid heaping on more sadness. To protect our loved ones, we want to shield them from any more pain.
The importance of making space for questions
This summer was my first time serving as a grief specialist with Experience Camps, and I was matched with the fourth-graders; who, as the youngest campers, were also first timers. In our “sharing circles,” I encouraged the boys to ask any questions they had for each other, and to respect that the person could choose not to answer. With this understanding of boundaries in place, the boys felt free to ask what they really were wondering.
The questions were raw and sincere and demonstrated how much curiosity these nine year olds possessed. Contrary to “heaping more sadness” on each other, this space provided a relief. The boys unburdened themself of questions, then spent the afternoon being kids and playing archery tag or chugging broccoli mayonnaise milkshakes (It’s a camp thing).
Remembering the wisdom of Mr. Rogers
One of my favorite models for talking about how to discuss upsetting world events with kids, even preschool-aged children, was modeled by TV host Fred Rogers, after the assassination of Robert Kennedy (“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Assassination Special,” Season One, Special Episode, June 7, 1968).
On his show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the character “Daniel Tiger” (puppetered by Rogers) asked “Lady Aberlin” to inflate a balloon. After questioning what happened to the air when released, he asked what would happen if she blew all her own air out. She then demonstrated that she could exhale and remain fine. Out of what seems like left field, Daniel Tiger asks what assassination means. After asking where he had heard it, Lady Aberlin tells him honestly that it means getting killed. He expresses that he’d rather talk about it another day, and she responds, “whenever you like!” Lady Aberlin tells Daniel that she is going to the picnic, and he mentions that he doesn’t feel like joining. So she provides him an expectation of how long she’ll be gone, and makes a plan to meet after.
Below are seven steps for talking to your own grieving child about a tragedy in the news:
1. Start by letting them ask questions.
Kids sense/know when something has happened. They may already have heard the news from school, friends, the radio, social media, etc. What they really want from you is a place to feel safe and to process. Ask what they have already heard, and how they feel about it. This will set the tone for whether they need answers or comforting in the moment.
2. Be honest.
Keep the discussion age appropriate, but be clear and avoid euphemisms. When someone says, “they left us” or, “he’s gone,” it causes confusion of whether this person is coming back. Daniel from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood is obviously grasping to understand death when he asks if people can become deflated like balloons, and Lady Aberlin is able to ease his fears by explaining that humans don’t work this way. He’s comforted by her because she’s proven herself trustworthy, as demonstrated by her direct explanation of assassination.
3. Normalize feelings.
After providing an intellectual explanation of assassination, Lady Aberlin tells Daniel that it’s causing many people to be sad and scared right now. She helps name two feelings Daniel is likely having given his fear of losing his air and his glum choice to stay home from the picnic. Voicing some of how the news is making you feel could make your child feel less alone in their emotions, as long as space is made for them to be heard as well.
4. Leave the door open for future conversations.
Daniel signals that he’s heard all that he can handle by communicating that he wants to talk another day, and she assures him that he can choose when to revisit it. Like balloons, we can only hold so much. I was glad for campers to have therapeutic outlets to discuss their family member(s) who had died, but once a distracting bug captivated their attention, I took it as a signal that they’d hit their fill.
5. Allow for balance.
Part of what I think makes Experience Camps one of the #bestweeksever is the balance between having
a cathartic release of (safely) smashing a plate in clinical activity, and moments later debating with friends whether an elephant or 10,000 rats would win in a battle. Some kids worry they have to appear sad all the time after receiving tragic news, so your encouragement of silliness and play will provide relief.
6. Share how you cope.
After the segment with Daniel, Mr. Rogers addressed the parents: “The best thing is for your children to be included in your family’s way of coping.” How do you emotionally regulate? Coping strategies I recommend in therapy include focused breathing, meditation, journaling, moving your body (run, swim, dance!), and experiencing nature. After the death of my childhood cat, my mother took me to the zoo to see animals and share our favorite memories of her as we walked.
7. Most Importantly: Remind them of your love.
“You’ve made this day a special day just by being you. I like you just the way you are.” Mr. Rogers would end his show with this affirming message of care. However you choose to explain these confusing tragedies to your child, the thing they’ll remember most is how you made them feel. Frustratingly you can’t shield them from everything; but your love will help build an armor of strength and support.
Kat O’Malley (She/her) is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist in Pasadena, California. She received her Master’s Degree in Psychology from Antioch with a specialization in LGBT+ Affirmative psychotherapy. Kat enjoys working with neurodiverse populations (autistic people and those with ADHD), teens discovering their gender identity or sexual orientation, and anyone who is looking to return home to themself. Outside of work, Kat loves crafting, swimming, hosting book clubs, visiting turtle ponds, and spending cherished time with her lizard Monterey Jax and seven guinea pig sons (six are hairless!).