How to talk to children of every age about the Westfield Bondi Junction attacks, according to a grief counsellor.

Following the horrific events at Bondi Westfield Bondi Junction this weekend, many parents may want help with whether to tell their children about what happened and if so, what is the best way to do that.

When events happen both in Australia, and globally, it is understandable when parents feel confused about how much we should protect our children from these events.

One very strong instinct is to completely shield them from it. When it comes to the news and social media, we are right to limit what our children see right now simply because their brains are not able to process these images in the way we can as adults.

Just like the quick-thinking and courageous dad who protected his children by physically shielding his children’s eyes with eye masks. This is a reminder to all of us that our children may see images on the news, or through social media that they won’t be able to ‘un-see’ and we should absolutely strive to protect our children from these potentially distressing images.

However, in a much broader sense the world, the media, the internet, even the playground – are too big for any parent to shield.

When disturbing events cross the boundary from news into public consciousness, they reach the consciousness of our children. They hear things, see things, and most importantly, see us and our fears. Children have fabulous radar for detecting that ‘something is wrong’ even if they’re not sure what it is – and it’s better that we provide the context to let them know what is happening, and most importantly, what, if anything, it means to them.


We are not only their safe base – we are their translator.

Local events and world events, no matter how awful, will be more understandable and less fearful if their context comes from us, in a connected and safe way.

Underlying anything we experience as humans is emotion. And when, as parents, we can be what our children need us to be when they are having feelings, everything goes better.

The good news is, there are really only two things needed to sit with the feelings that will come up for your child around big world events. These are: Connection, and allowing feelings.


When you are in a connected conversation with your child, it looks and feels different. Part of being connected is looking at your child to sense “What do you need right now? Are you feeling OK or not OK?” and giving, just enough, not too much of the information our child needs.

The best place to start a conversation about the tragedy in our world is with a question: You might ask your child have they heard about what happened. If so, what do they already know? Our children pick up so much of what we put down, they hear and see things and this allows us to start where they are at and then follow their lead.

There are a few other things to consider when you have this conversation:


1. That you are ready to talk. It's OK if you need a bit of time to process and be ready to talk to your children openly.

2. That when you talk, you can direct, clear, and give the facts your child needs in an age-appropriate way.

What’s appropriate at different ages:

Most children under four will just want to know they are safe.

We find out what they know, then tell them only the most basic information. This might be as simple as ‘someone hurt some people, a policewoman stopped that person, and the doctors are working hard on the people who got hurt.’

We limit the facts little children don’t need because we know they struggle to sift facts from fiction.

Little children will always need reassurance that they are safe, and the best way to reassure and connect with them will always be through play. We can even play out their worries with toys and let them explore feelings in a safe way.

For primary school-aged children.

As our children get older, we really want them to lead the conversation. We want to ask them what they’ve already heard, and if they have anything they want to ask us.

They have already heard that people died, or a man had a knife and that’s going to guide our answer.

It is important we stop and really listen without being too quick to reassure or simply tell them not to worry.

For tweens and older children.

We need to be ready to tell them what happened, sticking to facts. We may want to shield our older children but it’s so much better for them if we answer their questions in a direct way.


We need to give them space to process this information. We do this by being curious, by wanting to know more, by saying less but by using our body to show we are listening. 

Connection is the foundation of these conversations. Children who feel more connected with adults are more likely to come to them with their worries and feel more reassured by the answers.

READ: This happened in the one place all mums should feel safe to take their babies.

Allowing feelings.

In order to have a conversation about events that are both scary and sad, it helps to understand what our children need from us when they experience these feelings – and that is to welcome those feelings, (with all the mess and anxiety they bring up for us.)

We feel responsible for our children's happiness. When they are distressed, we feel distressed, and this often results in failing to meet their needs. We try to make things OK, distract our children, or avoid the emotions.

This is understandable. After all, from the minute we were handed our first baby we were told when it cries it’s our job to work out what’s wrong and fix it. To stop the sad!

The problem is that babies, and our children – they need to be heard, they need to be seen, and they need their fears need to be welcomed as a natural response to distress. We need to summon what it takes to sit in that uncomfortable feeling with our child and say, “That feeling makes sense, I know what that feels like, and I am here with you.”  


It’s difficult to hear our child saying they are worried or sad without trying to make it OK (and I can promise you, it never gets easier.) Fear and anxiety can – we all know – feel like a fire that we will do almost anything to put out, even for a moment. But when we can just ‘sit in the fire’ with them, our children feel less alone in these feelings, and they can build their own experience of resolving difficult emotions for themselves. 

The other thing to know is that children will mostly communicate that they are worried, sad or need us through their behaviour. So our job is to be really curious in the coming weeks. Many children process the information when we tell them completely fine, but then we notice they are cranky at siblings or us or struggling with transitions or bedtime… this may be a clue that they need help to process these underlying feelings. This might sound like “I know you are having a hard time sharing with your sister, and I am also wondering if you are still thinking about what we spoke about earlier?”

The fear we may have as parents is that if we do this, we could make things worse. In my experience, the exact opposite is true: connected conversation, that is willing to sit in the emotion, might be just as healing for us, as it can be for our children.

One of the best things you can say to any child who tells you they feel sad or worried about things they’ve been told about these events is to say two words: “Thank you”.


“Thank you so much for telling me you can’t stop thinking about this, I am so glad you came to me.” This gives us a beat to process, might keep us away from just dismissing or telling our children they have nothing to be worried about and have us more likely to really allow their feelings by saying “It makes sense to have emotions about this. I feel really sad too.” 

This lets your child they are not alone in their feelings. It allows them to start to process them, and best of all it keeps the door open to talking about emotions long term.

READ: This feels very, very close. Because it is.

When we allow our children's emotions, it requires us to be open and vulnerable. It’s hard to do but it can then lead to conversations about what we can do to help, even in a small way. It can build empathy for the lives of others, perhaps the most important emotion to hope for in a well-raised adult.

Sitting without our children in uncomfortable emotions can be one of the hardest things to do as a parent, but when we do, it can bring more peace, connection, compassion, and gratitude into our own homes.

Gen Muir is an author, parent educator, grief counsellor and mum to four boys. You can find her at and Instagram.

Feature image: AAP Image.