How do I talk to children about tragedies?

Natural disasters, mass shootings, the loss of loved ones.

When your heart is grieved by tragedies that you may not even fully understand, how do you even begin to go about talking to your children about them? Even though we long to tell our children they are always safe and hardships won’t affect them, we can’t do that because we live in a sinful and fallen world. However, the hope we have in God allows us, and our children, to face difficulties without fear. Following the four steps listed below will allow you to talk to your kids with confidence and give them the support they need.
1. Start out with a solid foundation
No family is exempt from hardships. In some way or another, your family will face moments of difficulty that will test you. When this happens, your faith should be strong enough to withstand those trials. Jesus reminds us of this in Matthew 7:24-27.
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
If you don’t want your kids to be heavily burdened in difficult times, you must actively build your house on the rock through maintaining a healthy and strong relationship with God and your family. This is easy to say and a nice thought in theory, but is actually the most difficult (and vital) step of the whole process. Hardships require patience, trust, obedience, level-headedness, and comfort. If any of these characteristics are not evident in your home during every day life, their lack will become magnified in difficulties. On the other hand, when children have a solid foundation, research has shown they are more resilient and better able to adapt in difficult circumstances.* The more your children experience peace and stability inside the world of their home, the more they are able to absorb and process the lack of it in the rest of the world.
2. Honestly say what needs to be said
Before talking with your children, begin to process the event for yourself. If you only have a few minutes, pray that God will give you peace and the right words to say to your children. Even if you still feel anxious, “fake it till you make it.” This does NOT mean that you should pretend nothing is wrong; part of honesty includes sharing how you feel. However, it does mean exemplifying the peace and stability that your children need.
The most important thing to keep in mind? Speak more out of faith than fear. When you're speaking about difficult things in the world, keep it in the context of God's sovereignty and power being greater than the evil around you. Part of not speaking out of fear includes not over-talking. No matter the age of your children, they should know they can safely ask you questions. When you begin answering those questions, stick to shorter answers and, if your children have more questions, they can ask. When we get anxious, it can be easy to keep talking, and that isn’t always needed or helpful because it can cause children to feed off your anxiety in a subject they may not even fully understand.
Taking your children’s age and comprehension ability into consideration is vital in choosing how much exposure they should have to tragedies. If they're really young, there may be no need to even bring it up if it doesn’t personally affect them. This means doing your best to filter the news they are hearing. Should they hear it on the news or at school, gently answer whatever questions they may have, then continue to the next step.
With junior high and high school students, answering their questions may go more in-depth. Acknowledging that evil does exist in the world and sharing how you are going to God with your mourning will help children feel safe to come to you to share their own thoughts and emotions on the situation. Some children may not come to you with questions, and in this case it may be helpful to gently ask them questions instead. Below are a few ways you can lead them to share.
“After hearing about _______, I felt _(sick to my stomach)_. How did you feel?”
“I’m glad I can go to God to talk to him about _____, and it’s also been nice to be able to talk to ______ about it. Do you feel like you can talk with any of your friends about it?”
“I realized that I’m needing some extra __(rest )__ right now as I think about ____.  Is there anything specific I can be doing for you as you process it?”
Help your child know what to expect, if possible. If they are going through the grieving process, walk through those steps as a family by reading a book on grief together such as Good Grief by Granger E. Westberg.
3. Plan
When tragedy strikes, it can cause children to fear what will happen in the future. After talking through the challenges it creates, one of the best ways to ward off fear is by planning for the future.
For older-aged children, teaching them how to react during a public attack can be life saving. Any time they go to a large public gathering, they should know to look for three things:
  1.  Evacuation: Identify two ways in and two ways out that they can use to evacuate
  2.  Cover: Find at least two areas they can hide behind that can stop a bullet
  3. Concealment: If the area for cover should be unattainable, find two areas they can hide behind that might not stop a bullet, but conceal them from the attacker
Younger children should be told to always stay with you if any emergency were to happen and if you get separated, everyone in the family should have a meet up point that has been decided beforehand. Lastly, every child should have his/her parents’ phone numbers memorized as this is the fastest way to reconnect.
Natural disasters
Planning for what to do if a natural disaster strikes is essential in not only creating peace for children worried about the future, but also in being prepared at a moment’s notice. The following 3 websites have excellent resources to help families create plans without creating fear:
If the disaster does not affect your family personally, plan how you can help others. First, respond by praying for those who were affected and for any who may have caused the tragedy. Be an example of forgiveness to your children by reminding them to pray for attackers by telling them, “Even when people make a bad decision to do something like this, we should pray for them because something is wrong in their heart.” Next, brainstorm as a family how you can help people who have been affected by it. Asking children for their input may lead to ways of helping others you may have never thought of on your own and it also allows the children to have a sense of ownership in helping make things better.
“I feel so bad for all the people affected by __ (the hurricanes)__ and wish we could help them. What are some ways you think we might be able to help them?”
4. Remind them of the good in the world
Always end discussions on tragedy by reminding children of positive truths. No matter the age, children will always gain encouragement from hearing something along the lines of…
“We're so thankful that God isn't scared. We don't have to be afraid because no matter what, God's going to take care of us. He'll either protect us so that we don't get hurt, He'll heal us when we do get hurt, He'll comfort us when someone we love gets hurt, or He'll be there to take care of us when we go to heaven where we can never get hurt again.”
If children still show signs of anxiety, reading a book with them such as Fears, Doubts, Blues and Pouts by Norman Wright, Gary J. Oliver, and Sharon Dahl can help reinforce healthy reactions to the situation. While we as parents want to be all our children need, sometimes they will need help from other trusted adults like therapists to help process the situation; and no matter how well-worded your encouragement is to your children, there is nothing stronger speaking the words of the heavenly father over them. Continually read scriptures like Isaiah 41:10 or Psalm 56:3-4 with your kids and talk with them about how it applies to the situation.
Lastly, don’t keep all the focus on the difficult circumstance. Find ways to laugh, relax, and appreciate God’s blessings together. And always keep in mind the wisdom of Mr. Rodger’s mother:
Even in the midst of the most terrible of circumstances, God is always working, helping and loving those in need.