How to Talk to Children about Tragedy

talk to children



Watching a news channel on any given day, there will probably be a number of distressing stories on display. It’s natural for parents to want to protect their children from the harsher aspects of the world, but with children getting online from a younger age, this is becoming more difficult.

Even if your child doesn’t actively look for news stories, they might hear things from their friends in school that are confusing and upsetting. Recent events in Manchester, England meant that young people were more likely than ever before to be interested in the news. This presents a difficult task for parents: how do you talk about bad things in the world without causing your child undue stress?

 BBC Newsround, a children’s news program in the UK, was praised for their coverage of the Manchester attacks. They managed to put the attacks in perspective and offered some helpful advice for children who were upset by the attacks. One of their suggestions was to talk to an adult about their feelings. I don’t know about you, but without some preparation, I would struggle to know what to say to a child who wanted to talk about tragedy. And so, I decided to get prepared, and this is the result of my research.

Define the limits

There will be certain aspects of the events that you want to leave out. Decide early on where the limits are so that you can steer the conversation if required. Children are naturally inquisitive and will always ask more questions, so it’s best not to say anything that could prompt a difficult question.

Pitch to their age

If your child has a younger sibling, you should talk to them on their own as they will have different levels of understanding of the events. You may have a child genius on your hands, but you should still pitch the news at their level. For children with learning or developmental difficulties, you should speak to their mental age, not their physical age. Children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) may not react in the same way, and may not want to be comforted in the same way so it’s important to take their personality and behaviour into consideration.

Avoid repetitive media

It’s a sad reality that the media love to sensationalise events in order to keep people watching. If you’re scared about what is going on, you’ll go back to watch the news again and again to get the latest updates. This means that it’s beneficial for the news networks to keep the coverage rolling. Avoid repetitive news cycles as this can make the situation seem more scary than it needs to be. If older children want to watch the news, pre-record it so that you know what to expect.

Make them feel safe

When tragedy happens, the media coverage is so widespread that it can feel like the threat is greater than it actually is. It’s important to remind your children that they are safe and that bad things are very unlikely to happen to them. By focusing on the positive things, it can help to balance the negativity. Look for ways that you and your child can help make a difference in the world and they will soon feel much safer.


“Rebecca Harper is a freelance journalist living in London. She is passionate about social care and works with Lorimer Fostering to encourage more people to foster a child.”