Q&A with Laura Wheat: How to Talk to Children about Tragedy

Laura Wheat is an assistant professor of counselor education in UT’s College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences and coordinator of the college’s Grief Outreach Initiative.

Q: How do you talk to your kids about what happened in Las Vegas?

Don’t try to hide it from them; they will likely have heard about it already anyway, and as a parent, you want to do as much damage control and comforting as needed. 

Explain to kids what happened in developmentally appropriate terms. For example, for kids around age six or younger, you might say something like “A man in Las Vegas got very angry and shot a lot of people. Many people died and some got hurt badly and had to go to the hospital.” Younger kids may be frightened because they sense that adults around them are tense, anxious, and sad. They may need reassurance that they will be taken care of and that adults will keep them as safe as possible.  

Older kids may ask lots of questions, particularly about why this happened. It’s OK to tell them you don’t know, and that there isn’t always an answer; don’t feel the need to fill in the gaps. It is probably a good idea to approach teens and check in with them to find out what they’ve heard and how they feel about it. Don’t push them if they’re not ready to talk, but be open for them to say whatever is on their mind or in their heart. Teens may want to be with each other rather than their parents.

In cases of national tragedy, giving them a place to be together that is monitored by adults can be helpful, as can encouraging them to do something positive together to make a difference rather than only dwelling on the tragedy. 

Finally, no matter how old they are, limit your kids’ exposure to media coverage, including social media, in order to avoid trauma that comes from repeated witnessing of graphic images and sounds. When they are watching video clips or news footage, try to be there so they can talk to you about what they’re seeing.

Q: How do you handle your own emotions and fears in today’s world?

A lot of the advice about talking to kids applies to adults as well. The primary thing to remember is to take care of yourself first. Know your personal limits; for most of us, overconsumption of the sensory images associated with violence is traumatizing, so limit your watching. You may also consider limiting your social media presence for a little bit to avoid feeling overwhelmed. 

However, do seek out support when, where, and with whom you need it. Reach out to friends and family for mutual comfort and processing; be careful about rumination and overprocessing, however. That sounds contradictory, but the point is to give yourself what you need without making it worse. Similar to an open wound that can’t heal if you continually poke at it, emotional wounds need just enough care to support the healing process. 

And on a daily basis, monitor your emotional state. We all wake up some days feeling better than others. But in today’s world, when it seems as though things change moment by moment and there is plenty of anxiety to go around, it’s even more important to monitor yourself so you know when you just have the blues and when you might need outside help. This is especially important if you have kids you are raising in this world. It’s OK to let them see your emotions, because that models for them what appropriate handling of feelings looks like.

If you are in great distress, however, it’s a good idea to get your needs met outside kids’ presence in order not to exacerbate any fears or anxieties they might have about their own safety.

Q: How does reading and watching this type of news event affect your health?

Reading and watching for information is one thing; torturing yourself with repetitious or obsessive viewing is quite another. We can traumatize ourselves by overloading our circuits, even if we are not on the scene of the tragedy or even know anyone there. That’s one of the lessons we learned from September 11, which was the first time we had a national tragedy in the age of the “24-hour news cycle.” The coverage of that event and the aftermath was continuous and lasted for weeks. At a certain point, many adults (and children) found themselves suffering from nightmares and anxiety, all from repeated exposure to video scenes of the towers, ash-covered people running, or the frozen countenances of those witnessing the second plane hit. We need to pace ourselves. We need to know ourselves well enough to sense when we need to unplug for a little while, and then do it.

Q: Please share anything else you think would be helpful.

At times like this, it’s common to feel hopeless and helpless and to wonder what kind of world our kids are going to inherit. It can often help to do something meaningful or restorative, something that increases wellness and balance rather than just having to tolerate and deal with the bad feelings. This could be different for each person. Some choose to mindfully increase kind actions, some increase focus on a spiritual practice, some decide to act on a cause, some take part in community rituals. I would encourage each of us to decide what will be uplifting and then take action, inviting our kids to be part of it when appropriate.

CONTACT:

Tyra Haag (865-974-5460, tyra.haag@tennessee.edu)