Must-Read: An age-by-age guide to explaining tragedy to children

We all watched in horror and disbelief after learning that two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon yesterday in what is believed to be a terrorist attack. As parents struggle to process the news, it's hard to know what to say about this tragic event to our kids. iVillage talked to Russell T. Jones, Ph.D., director of the Stress and Coping Lab at Virginia Tech University, USA, who assisted students in healing after the 2007 shootings there, to find out what to say, age by age.


Shield them: Very young children don't need to be informed about disturbing events, says Dr. Jones. If possible, help kids avoid the news by turning off the TV and watching what you say to other adults in their presence. 

Stress that they're safe: If kids do find out about the bombing or someone that they know was affected, keep your answers to their questions simple without revealing too many details. It's also important to reassure them: Tell them that you and other grown-ups are working to help keep them safe. 

Stick to the routine: There's comfort in normalcy, so try to continue whatever your kids would usually be doing, even if it feels weird to toss a ball in the backyard when you know there are people suffering.

Primary School

Be honest: Kids this age may hear about it from friends, the news or overhear an adult conversation. Instead of offering up too many details, wait for your kids ask questions or start by asking what they've heard. "Use that as a window to find out what they already know and share information from there," says Dr. Jones. Keep answers simple and straight-forward so kids don't get overwhelmed.

Emphasise the good over the bad: There's no denying it to this age group — there are bad people who do bad things. However, do your best to stress that there are even more people that help, from bystanders to first responders to law enforcement.

Talk about your own feelings: While you don't want to upset your kids, sharing how you feel can help your kids talk about their own emotions. 

High School

Keep yourself informed: Teenagers are going to have more complex questions, but that doesn't mean that you need to have all the answers, says Dr. Jones. What's really important is that you keep the lines of communication open.

Watch news supervised: By 11 or 12, some kids may have the coping skills to watch the news, says Dr. Jones. However, make sure you sit with them so you can answer questions or turn off the TV if images are graphic.

Keep tabs on their social media use: Although social media can be a great tool for staying connected, it isn't always the best source for getting information. Make sure your child is getting age-appropriate news from reliable sources.

Be indirect: Older kids may have a hard time opening up about a difficult situation. Sometimes it's easier to broach the subject with a more casual inquiry, such as: "Were kids talking about this at school?"

Know your kid: You are the best judge of what your kids can handle. If a child has previously been exposed to a trauma, an upsetting event like the bombings can be a trigger for those feelings coming up again, says Dr. Jones. Keep an eye out for signs of stress, like nightmares, trouble sleeping, crying or other signs of anxiety.

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