Expert Advice On Talking To Children About Tragedy

The question then is not whether to tell them, but how.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

I was cuddling with my 4-year-old on the couch a few days ago. We were close, connected, and in good spirits. It felt like the right time to ask, "Hey, have you heard anyone talk about the sad news that happened here in Orlando?" He didn't say if he heard or not, but innocently asked, "What happened?"

I told him that someone who had anger in his heart hurt a lot of people. I told him that everyone is upset because no one has the right to do that, especially to people who weren't doing anything wrong. He didn't ask why he hurt people, but he asked how. I told him with a gun. He picked up his light saber off the ground, and said he would get him with it if he saw him. He then kissed me and ran off to play.

After the mass shooting that happened, I set out to see how local parents are speaking to their children about the tragedy. What I discovered is that many of them simply aren't. After all, it's summertime, and many kids aren't hearing as much circulating news as they would be if school was is session. I originally didn't plan on mentioning the events to my 4-year-old either, but hearing from parents with much older children who were still avoiding the difficult topic surprised me. I understand their loving intentions, though. They don't want their children consumed with fear. They want them to perceive the world as happy and safe.

As one Florida mother of three put it, "I'm not ready to impose such negativity on them. The longer I can keep the fear away from them, I will."

I mentioned this to my friend, Dr. Linnda Durre' who is a world-renowned psychotherapist in the Orlando area with over 38 years of experience working with young children, teens, and families. She has shared her expertise on Oprah, 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, and the Today Show, among many other platforms. I asked her at what age she thinks parents should inform their children of these types of events. She responded that sheltering children can have its drawbacks and repercussions. The question then is not whether to tell them, but how. Dr. Durre' says, "The best technique is to use concepts, language, and words that are geared to their age and maturity."

That Sunday morning of the tragedy, anxious energy whirled around our minds, bellies, and home. My husband and I talked about the events as our children ran and played as normal. For the week that followed, it consumed conversations, thoughts, and news-feeds. I assumed my preschooler didn't know about it because he didn't ask any questions. Lord knows he doesn't withhold questions! He asks more than I can generally keep up with. But as my mom often tells me, he is always listening and more aware than I think.

I asked Dr. Durre' if it's appropriate for parents to avoid the topic unless their child asks about it. She said, "If your child isn't asking questions, you can't assume it's because he's unaware. It might be that he's afraid to ask, that he doesn't want to know, or that the topic seems taboo."

She recounted a time from her childhood when her friend's parents were going through a divorce. It was so secretive, no one talked about it, and she went to bed every night worrying to herself that maybe it would happen to her parents, too. "They had a very good marriage in many ways, and really loved each other, yet a child thinks about the worse sometimes," she stated.

Dr. Durre' advises parents to talk about such heavy topics gently, in a safe and quiet place.

"Offer your child a snack because food is a great way to absorb tension and anxiety," she recommended. She noted the fact that business meetings are often held over lunch.

"Eating is a social event, and everyone wants to be on their best behavior. Dining in restaurants can quell angry outbursts for fear of making a scene," she stated.

She says parents should approach these topics with their children in subtle ways. They might implore, "Have you heard of any stories on (the issue)" Ask gently. She says not to force the conversation, but be open and available. Be physically nurturing with lots of holding, hugging, and back rubbing.

Dr. Durre' continued to say that in some cases there are a lot of complexities to talk about. In the Pulse shooting, homosexuality is one of them. She said in some ways these concepts can be beyond children, and sometimes not beyond them at all. In talking about homosexuality she said to be liberal in terms of acceptance and non-judgment of others regardless of their sexual orientation. She warns that children pick up on unpleasant faces and remarks as well as the inflection and tone of disapproval, shock, or revulsion.

A theme in my conversation with Dr. Durre' is that children are often more aware than we think. I ended up broaching the subject with my 4-year-old, and I'm glad I did. Our conversation was simple and undramatized. Now he knows, in case there was any doubt, my door is open for further questions. It's natural for parents to want to protect their children, but the sometimes cruel realities of the world will expose themselves sooner or later. I rather my children be informed now, than shell-shocked later or angry at me for withholding information. Although they will know the world isn't always a safe and friendly place, they will trust that their home is.