McNerney: Talking with Your Children About Tragic Events

By Neil McNerney, Parenting with Purpose

Events like the Las Vegas shooting, while tragic on their own, bring about additional dilemmas for parents: How do we talk with our kids about it? How do we help our kids make sense of something that is so senseless? In this column, I will share some specific ideas to help your children during difficult times.

Keep your emotions in check. Your kids will listen very carefully to what you say around them. Avoid making statements like: “What is wrong with the world?” “There is so much hate.” Comments like this, although appropriate for adult conversation, can often be misunderstood by children and significantly increase their anxiety. Regardless of how upset you might be about these types of events, try to keep a lid on it while your kids are in earshot. Their level of anxiety will be directly affected by your level of anxiety.

Create a quiet home space. If your family typically has the TV on in the background during family time, consider turning it off while your children are around. Live TV is unedited TV. Images, once seen by young children, can be traumatizing and create long term fears. Even if the news is happening in real time, your children’s mental health should take precedence over your need to know what is happening right at this moment. It is your responsibility to filter the news so that, depending on the age of the child, you can help them make sense of it. We know that, based the Sept. 11 attacks, those children that were exposed to more media images and videos of the event had more long-term anxiety than children less exposed.

Children under six do not need to be told about events such as Las Vegas and shouldn’t be exposed to any media coverage. Keeping their routine is the best way to help kids this age.

Children ages 6-11 need very basic facts and lots of reassurance that they are safe. It is also important at this age to significantly limit media exposure.

Children over 11 often have more control over their ability to learn what is happening through social media and their technology. It is important to encourage them to limit their exposure to news events and not view image after image.

Also, try to avoid staring at your phone to get updates. Your kids will notice it and get worried. Whenever something overwhelming happens in a child’s life, the tendency is to look toward their parents for reassurance. Your goal is to send the message that all is OK with the world, even if there is something sad that happened

Acknowledge their feelings. Children will respond with many types of emotions and questions. Fear, anger, curiosity, and indifference are all normal responses to such an event.

Provide some context. Help them understand that these type of events are very rare. Children do not understand the size of the United States and the distance between what happened and their neighborhood.

Assure them that they are safe. In addition to reminding them that these events are extremely rare, it is also a good idea to remind them that their home and school is safe. Now would be a good time to talk with them about how the school doors are locked when they are in the classroom and every person that comes in must be checked. Also, they might not be aware of your nighttime routine of checking your doors and windows and any other safety measures that you take as a family to keep your house safe. Sharing this procedures with them could be very reassuring for them. Remind them about how the police and other emergency professionals are always on the lookout for dangerous situations.

Be aware of significant changes in their emotions and behavior. Temporary changes are normal when a tragic even has occurred. Irritability, clinginess, difficulty sleeping, appetite changes, school avoidance, and fearfulness are all normal responses. Be extra accommodating during this time. If they need extra time with you at bedtime, give it to them. If they seem to always want to be at your side, let them. Don’t hesitate to let their teachers and school counselors know that they are having difficulty adjusting. Extra reassurance and TLC during this time can be very beneficial. If, after a week or so, it seems that they are still having difficulty adjusting, a few visits to a counselor or mental health provider could be a good idea so that they can learn specific anxiety reduction techniques.

Hopefully, these ideas will help create some structure around tragic events. Lastly, I would encourage you to use this time to hold your family a little closer and spend a little more time together.


       Save The Date! On Oct. 14, I will be participating in Loudoun County Public School’s parent seminar series Navigating The Path To Wellness! This will be a day of inspiring speakers and trainers that will help all of us become better parents. I will be providing a breakout session on developing grit and perseverance. Go to for more information.

[Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out! and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at 703-352-9002 and [email protected]]

Leave a Reply