Helping kids process public tragedy and terror




Many children will hear about the recent attacks or other frightening events such as widespread fires, weather-related events, or horrific events experienced in other places. Parents will be struggling about what to say and how much to say.

Having owned a child care facility in Oklahoma during the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, I would like to share some tips we learned about addressing children after a public crisis situation. These tips can apply to most public tragedy situations.

If a child has experienced a previous crisis such as a divorce, the death of a parent, or the stress of having a parent deployed to a war zone, he or she may be acutely aware of what the word “tragedy” means. Children will be aware that something is happening in our world.

Here are some things you can relay to the parents and grandparents in your church

If your children live in a joint parenting or shared parenting situation, you might not be aware of what they have learned or heard at the other parent’s home. You will especially need to be vigilant about connecting with your children and explaining things on their development level.

  1.  Keep calm.

Do not hug your children fiercely every time you see them. They may not fully comprehend all that has happened. However, they can pick up on your fretfulness.* Stay calm and speak to your children in a calm and reassuring tone of voice.

  1.  Turn off the TV.

I can’t say this loud enough: TURN OFF THE TV. And limit their social media exposure.

In a downloadable article, Protecting Children from Disturbing Media Reports During Traumatic Events, we are reminded that younger children can’t tell the difference between reality and non-reality. To them, every time they see something about an attack or shooting, they will think another attack has happened and will wonder if their school or city is next. Remember, younger children will not know where Parkland is. To them, Parkland could be down the street.

Older kids may go to the Internet to watch videos. Or they may see news clips at a friend’s home. If they ride a school bus, they may hear the older kids talking. It’s especially important to keep a close eye on what they are viewing. While you may have good controls on what your kids do and watch at your home, you may not know what they actually have access to at the other home. That’s why it’s important to talk to your children. Take your cues from your children, but periodically ask questions about what they heard from other kids at school, on the school bus, and in other places.  

  1.  Remember, children have big ears.

Do not talk to other adults about this tragedy in front of your children. Don’t speculate about what our government leaders are or are not doing. Young children think only in the moment. When they hear something, their minds assume it to be true.

  1.  Talk to them.

At a calm moment, sit down with your children and ask what they know about this situation. Ask them what they want to know. Explain things in as calm a voice as you can. Keep the door of communication open and tell them you’ll talk again about this issue.

A lot of children will be concerned at first, but they will move on quickly and forget all about it. Rein in your fears in front of your children, or they will worry there is something to continually be fearful over.

  1.  Point out the positives.

Talk about the helper people. Pastor Fred Rogers, the creator of the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood TV show, always said to focus on the helper people. Talk about the police officers, firefighters, ambulance workers, counselors, and chaplains and ministers. It takes the emphasis off the tragic situation and focuses the attention on the good people in our world.

  1.  Be truthful.

Don’t lie to your children. When they ask you why this happened, tell them you don’t know. If they ask why God would allow this to happen, tell them God did not like what happened, and He wants them to be safe. Sometimes bad people do bad things.

  1.  Pray with your children.

Pray for the families and friends involved. Pray for our country and pray for the leaders. Ask God to keep you and your kids safe. During your prayer time, provide Scriptures such as Psalm 18:2 (NIV): “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” Be sensitive to moments when your children are ready to hear the gospel.

  1.  Remind children they are safe.

Pull your children up on your lap and tell them they are safe right now. You can only guarantee your children’s safety in the moment, and for now that is what they need.

  1.  Remind children to follow instructions.

If you have elementary-age children, talk to them about listening to their teachers, church leaders, and you when an emergency happens.

  1.  Let your children play.  

Don’t be surprised if your children start playing through various situations. Even nine-, ten-, and eleven-year-old kids will pull out the army men and other characters and play through their stress and fears. Stay on the sidelines, listen, and observe. Just let them play through without interruptions. If you hear or see something disturbing, later on take time to talk to the children about what might be disturbing them.   

For younger children, water play is relaxing and will serve to relieve some of their stress. Bath time is a great time for kids to play through their anxieties. Provide them with a lot of toys they can use in their water or bath time play.

Here are a couple of links that talk about tragic events.

Special Kids Ministry Collective podcast with children’s pastors Ron Brooks, Tom Bunt, Wayne Stocks, and me. This is not event-specific but applies to several different situations. A lot of practical advice can be found in this podcast.

Talking to kids about the tornado in OK: While the suggestions in this article are for children who have experienced a tornado or other weather-related event, the suggestions are good for other situations also.

* God designed us to be influenced by those we spend time with. (This is why the Bible tells us to be selective about whom we spend time with: 1 Cor. 15:33; Prov. 13:20, 22:24.) This principle applies to parents, children, and family members, so it’s important that the parent learn to control his or her emotions (in the short and long term).


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