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Talking to Your Children About Tragedies in the News

There’s no one way to address tragedies with children, and how parents approach it depends both on the child’s age and temperament and past experiences with trauma and death. The American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend avoiding the topic with children until they reach a certain age – around eight years old, but again, it depends on the child.

“If it doesn’t directly affect your family, kids under eight do not need to hear about this,” say some parenting experts. Before this age, children struggle to process it.  But parents should definitely talk to their younger children about mass shootings, if they are at risk of hearing it from others, school discussions or watching it on social media.

Similar to terrorist bombings, war scenes from the Middle East and other mass shootings, this event will be played out in the media constantly, so it’s better to be prepared on how to handle your children. The recent influx of natural disasters, hurricanes and devastation, children see communities coming together for a common good to support other states, and countries.

While advice varies by age, a general recommendation for all parents faced with telling their children about the latest mass shooting is to not only listen, but help them to understand that this is something that we as adults don’t completely understand.

First, you have to process your own emotional response. Come to grips with the reality of what happened. How you approach the topic and how you respond to questions will affect them more than what you say. You may want to filter your thoughts, through another adult or friend and make sure you have accurate information. Watch how your child is handling the information, if they are asking questions, if they are upset. Children will feed off of our reactions 

The National Association of School Psychologists offers the following tips for talking to your students about mass shootings and other national tragedies:

Reassure children that they are safe. Emphasize that schools are very safe. Validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.

Create time to listen and be available to talk. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. Be patient. Children and youth do not always talk about their feelings readily. Watch for clues that they may want to talk, such as hovering around while you do the dishes or yard work. Some children prefer writing, playing music, or doing an art project as an outlet. Young children may need concrete activities (such as drawing, looking at picture books, or imaginative play) to help them identify and express their feelings.

Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate.

  • Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give simple examples of school safety like reminding children about exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.
  • Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.
  • Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines (e.g. not providing building access to strangers, reporting strangers on campus, reporting threats to the school safety made by students or community members, etc.), communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.

Review school safety procedures. This should include procedures and safeguards at school and at home. Help children identify at least one adult at school and in the community to whom they go if they feel threatened or at risk.

Observe children’s emotional state. Some children may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns can indicate a child’s level of anxiety or discomfort. In most children, these symptoms will ease with reassurance and time. However, some children may be at risk for more intense reactions. Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others. Seek the help of a mental health professional right away if you are at all concerned.

Limit media exposure. Limit television viewing and be aware if the television is on in common areas. Monitor what kids are viewing online and how they are consuming information about the event through social media. Developmentally inappropriate information can cause anxiety or confusion, particularly in young children. Adults also need to be mindful of the content of conversations that they have with each other in front of children, even teenagers, and limit their exposure to vengeful, hateful, and angry comments that might be misunderstood.

Maintain a normal routine. Keeping to a regular schedule can be reassuring and promote physical health. Ensure that children get plenty of sleep, regular meals, and exercise. Encourage them to keep up with their schoolwork and extracurricular activities but don’t push them if they seem overwhelmed.

A lot of these tips can also be applied to educators — to take proper care of their students, they must first take care of themselves.

Below are some additional resources:

Updated: 10/2/2017