From floods and tornadoes, to earthquakes and tsunamis; even unprovoked invasions, terrorism, and the onset of war in Ukraine – families around the world have faced the trauma of disasters and the need to discuss these events with their kids.

Parents and teachers are faced with the challenge of what their children may hear and see on TV and social media, or simply from conversations with their peers.  As a parent, you may be wondering how to help your children process the situation. Let us help!

It’s not so much WHAT you say and but more importantly, HOW you say it

As parents, we have a natural instinct to protect our kids from things in life that are uncertain, threatening, unknown, or anxiety-provoking. You’re not alone in feeling unsure about the best ways to approach these conversations with your children – how to balance keeping them informed while making sure their mental health stays intact.  Still, it’s important that we try to work through our own emotions about the topics and find a healthy way to address them with our children.

Model appropriate ways to express emotions

Children have an innate ability to pick up on even the mildest emotional cues from their parents. They notice small shifts in your emotional state even when you try your best to shield them from it.  For this reason, it is incredibly important to be aware of our own emotional state when we share news with our children.  Not only should you be aware of your emotions, but also, take the time to process your emotions and arrive at a more balanced emotional state before you talk to your children.  Unprocessed, raw emotions from adults tend to overwhelm children so make sure you have processed your own emotions so that you can come to the conversation with a sense of basic groundedness and the capacity to contain any feelings your child has rather than having to navigate your own. This will make space for your child to bring to you their emotional response, knowing that you are capable of handling it.

Acknowledge that it’s okay to have big feelings about what is going on.  It is one thing to have big feelings and it is a completely separate thing to be spinning out of control with those feelings (or even letting the feelings drive your actions).  Model the difference to your child. Use the opportunity to teach your child emotional vocabulary and expression by labeling your feelings.  This is an incredibly important coping skill in its own right.  Next, take the time to tell (or show) your child what you are doing to cope with those feelings and how these strategies help you to feel better.

As you talk with your child, be aware of your tone of voice, facial expression, and body language.  When you are confident and relaxed (even if not fully), the message comes across in a way that your child is better able to digest. If you are in a place of heightened anxiety, perhaps it is best to choose a different time to talk with your child.

Identify the situation and don’t dismiss their worries

Conversations should be age appropriate, using a small amount of detail and covering the concrete facts. Children are more resilient than you think. It’s okay for them to know about war, terrorism, and natural disasters, but the details have to be age and developmentally-appropriate.

Start by asking your child what they know or have seen/heard about the event. Don’t be too quick to correct misinformation, allowing them to fully share before jumping in. Not all children will react the same way, and some won’t be negatively affected by these topics.

Younger kids may need a more generalized explanation. On the other hand, older kids have probably already heard about the event on social media or through friends. Since they are better able to understand concepts around culture, governments, and war, you can have more direct conversations with them, paying attention to their emotional reactions as you move through these subjects

Be ready to listen and let your child direct the conversation.  Offer a small piece of information (or a few) and let it be, paying attention to their reactions and need for clarification or additional questions.  Your child will let you know whether they want more information or not. For children, having several opportunities for brief conversations is far better than one long and possibly overwhelming sit-down talk.

Leave room for questions

Ask them what they have heard, and take the time to correct any misconceptions. Also, leave space and time for questions such as:

  • How do you feel about that?
  • What does that make you think about?
  • Do you have questions about what is happening/happened?

Some children will ask many questions and others will not, but leave the invitation open just in case. Also, some children will ask questions right away and others will need space to digest the information before coming to you with questions.Finally, realize that some children process information verbally (through discussion and questions) and others process better through play.  There is no preferred or better way to process information so respect your child’s choice.

Offer reassurance and hope

While we can’t guarantee to our children how exactly the event  will turn out, we can certainly instill hope and a reassurance that they (themselves) are safe and away from harm. Focusing on the helpers and the way this can possibly bring people together is one way of instilling hope. 

Beyond that, it’s helpful to explain to your child what you and your community have already done or plan to do to help the people involved in the disaster. Talk to them about the kinds of things people might need in the months and even years after a war or natural disaster. Getting involved, giving back, and making a difference are actions we all can and need to take when disaster strikes. Beyond the humanitarian need for this type of action, it also gives children a sense of control and agency in a situation that may be leading them to feel powerless and scared.  Action is always a way to combat anxiety. By offering children a way to help and take action, you can empower them to move beyond their fear and cope with their feelings in a healthy way.