Feb 21, 2014 8:00 AM

Author: Philip L. Baese, MD, FAPA

When a personal, family, or community tragedy befalls us, we often face difficult conversations with our children. As adults, we are often in the midst of grieving the loss ourselves, which compounds the challenges and confusion that accompanies the explanations we give our children. There is no single ‘right’ way in which to discuss death or tragedy with children. Much of what we do and say must be guided by common sense and a good understand of the child we are talking to. As such, these conversations fall to parents, grandparents, or other close relatives. Below, are some guidelines and resources that you might find useful in these conversations.

Children, even of preschool age, are aware of death as a part of everyday life. Their understanding of its meaning and permanence however develops over time. Preschool aged children and young grade school children often see death as reversible, while older grade school children might understand its permanence, but not necessarily as personally relevant (e.g., it happens to others). Later on, in middle school/junior high school, most children understand their own mortality personally and often begin the lifelong process of creating an understanding of and meaning behind death.

It is important to be sympathetic and non-judgmental in our responses to a child’s questions about death. This will facilitate the process of talking to them about the tragedy.

Assess What They Know About the Tragedy

Ask the child what, if anything, they have heard about the tragedy. Avoid repeated exposure to sources that sensationalize or depersonalize the event (such as news media or the internet)

Begin a Conversation About the Tragedy

Avoid vague or euphemistic explanations that may only make the child more confused or anxious – such as “they went away…” or “it was their time…” Sudden or unexpected death is often hard to explain fully (even to ourselves as adults). It’s ok not to have all of the answers. An honest answer about uncertainty (why did this happen?) is better than an explanation that we ourselves don’t fully believe or that oversimplifies the complexity of the situation.

Continue the Conversation About the Tragedy

Taking the lead from the child’s continued concerns, added questions, or new found worries will help keep them informed and give them permission to re-engage with you. Pacing the conversation with brief and straightforward explanations, rather than lectures or complicated responses will allow the child to digest the information in small amounts and form new questions. Checking in periodically at predictable times (family meals, for example) helps keep the door open to more conversation and keeps it from becoming a taboo topic.

Anticipated responses in children include anger and regression to previous/younger aged behaviors (thumb sucking, clinginess, etc.). Sometimes a depressed mood or behavior problems might arise – including withdrawal, irritability, school avoidance, defiance, or even physical symptoms, such as stomachaches. These may be short lived or can occur for up to several months. If they significantly interfere with functioning at school, home, or with friends, they indicate the need for advice from a trusted professional (such as a clergy member, primary care physician, social worker, school counselor, or other mental health professional).

Recommended Free On-line Resources

Talking to Children & Teens About Tragedy — University Neuropsychiatric Institute, University of Utah Health

Helping Children Cope: Tips for Talking About Tragedy – Mayo Clinic

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