Parents often struggle when trying to respond to children’s questions about tragedies. It is difficult to provide reassurance when we ourselves are uncertain about how to respond. The questions children ask and the explanations parents provide vary according to age, temperament, and level of development.

Here are some guidelines for children of all ages:

  • Monitor your own reactions, as children learn most from those in their immediate environment. Maintaining a calm attitude reassures children that parents are in control and making sure their children are safe.
  • Before answering questions, find out what the child has seen, read, or heard. Some children need to be encouraged to ask questions or engage in a dialogue.
  • Tell the truth, using appropriate language, but try to address just what the child is asking without giving too much information. Young children particularly need information in small increments that they can handle without being overwhelmed.
  • Control exposure to the media. It can create stress in children. None should be allowed for young children. For older children, viewing should be limited and parents should monitor it closely.
  • Maintain routines and predictability in children’s lives. Provide comfort and structure.
  • Reach out to other adults to talk to for emotional support. Do not burden children with your natural fears and concerns.
  • It is not always possible to know if children are afraid or worried about what they hear. Some children are naturally more prone to fears, and a dangerous situation may heighten their anxieties. Seek professional help if you have concerns about your child.
  • Sometimes children will not respond to the situation immediately but will be affected a few days or weeks later.

Preschool-age children

  • Preschoolers ask very basic questions that can be hard to answer. They need responses that are short, simple, and factual. If your preschooler asks, “Why did those children die?”, you might explain that even adults don’t know why bad things happen sometimes and that we feel very sad for these families.
  • Gun-play is normal, and it may increase in response to current events, as children actively process information by acting out, imitating or problem-solving different scenarios.
  • It is important to provide reassurance to your children that they will be safe, and it is your job to make sure they are safe. Remind them to talk to an adult if they feel scared.

School-age children

  • By six or seven, children may have specific questions. Some questions will be impossible for parents to answer, but children can tolerate uncertainty if we are honest and they trust us to share what we do know.
  • School-age children have vivid imaginations, and talk of guns can create strong fears. We can reassure them by saying that usually guns are locked away and are only used by people who are in charge of keeping everyone safe. But sometimes these things happen, and adults are trying to find new ways to make sure that guns are not available.
  • Reassure children by reviewing safety measures: knowing parent phone numbers, letting parents know where children are, and knowing whom to call in case of emergency.

The Center for Children and Youth is here to help with emotional support and practical guidance for all families. If you or your child could need counseling or support, please contact JFCS’ Center for Children and Youth at 1-888-927-0839 or contact us online.