How do we talk to kids about tragedies? How do we calm their worries? And how do we help children try to make sense of the unimaginable and still find a way to cope? Those are the top questions parents and educators are asking about the latest school shooting.

My “TALK Model” may help. It offers four important parts to discussing any tragedy with a child. Remember: the key to your discussion is to display calmness and confidence. Only then will children take our words to heart and be more hopeful and thrive.

T.A.L.K. Model to Discuss Tragedy with Kids

T – TALK about the tragic event. Ensure that your child has accurate information that come straight from you.

A – ASSESS how the child is coping, Tune into your child’s feelings and behavior. Watch and listen how he deals with the event so you’ll know how to help him cope and build resilience. Every child handles a tragedy differently.

L – LISTEN to concerns and questions. Use the “Talk. Stop. Listen. Talk. Stop. Listen” model as you converse. The secret is to listen more than your talk. Answer what you can. Follow your child’s lead.

K – KINDLE hope that despite the horror, life will go on. Help your children realize though there is a horrific tragedy, there is also goodness, compassion and hope.

Here are 11 tips to use the T.A.L.K. Model with your children. Use only those tips that apply. Remember, a talk about a devastating event is never a one time discussion. Keep the conversation going and monitor your child.

11 Tips to Talk About Tragedies

1. Stay calm and strong.  Don’t expect to be able to help allay your kids’ anxiety unless you’re keeping your own worries in check. Kids will be calmer if we are calmer. Let your children know you’re upset-worried-sad, but what you’re doing to stay calm. Mediate. Take a walk. Listen to soothing music. Do deep breathing. Exercise. Journal your feelings. Show your child how you cope so that he will have a model to copy. Resilient kids have resilient parents.

2. Talk in age-appropriate terms. Kids hear about tragedies. More often than not what your child hears won’t be accurate and that misinformation can fuel anxiety. Kids need to hear the facts, and we are their best source.

  • Plan what you want to say. Doing so will help you have a calmer delivery.
  • Find out what they know. Begin by getting on the same page as your child so you can direct the conversation accordingly. “What do you know?'” or “What have you heard?” are good openers.
  • Don’t worry if you don’t have the answers. It’s okay say: “I don’t know, but I’ll find that out.” Or “Great question. Let’s find that answer together.”
  • Be kid-oriented. Alter talking points to your child’s age and maturity. Your discussion can be as long or as short as your child needs. Kids don’t need horrific details.“Yes, children died”..but you don’t have to describe types of injuries.
  • Give information in short nuggets. Don’t explain more than your child is ready to hear or needs to know.
  • Honor silence. Allow time for your child to process the information and try to understand what you’re saying.
  • Answer questions matter-of-factly. Be prepared for anything. “Why did he shoot those kids?” is one of the toughest questions. Answer based on facts and what you want your child to know,, but don’t give the view that’s how all people are. You can also flip and ask: “What do you think?”
  • Keep the conversation going. Let your child know you’re available to talk at any time or any place. “You may have other questions, so come to me!”
  • Use a safe starter. Some kids hold in their concerns so initiate the conversation. A safe way to begin: “What are your friends saying?”  Don’t assume because your kid is older or isn’t saying anything he isn’t affected. You might also want to ignite that social justice element in your tween or teen: “What do you think our country should do?” Spark the conversation about gun laws. Talk about rights. Teens can get passionate and he helps reduce fears. Let kids talk!.
  • Assure safety. A prime concern is safety. “Is he coming to my school to get me, too?” Young children do not have an understanding of time or space. Explain: “That happened way far away.” Stress actions your community is taking: “The teachers, police and doctors are all working hard to keep us safe.” While you can’t promise safety, you can assure your child that everyone is doing everything to keep kids safe because people care.

3. Validate feelings. Children need to know it’s okay to share feelings and that it’s normal to be upset. Help your child find healthy ways to voice concerns. Express your own feelings: “Yes, I’m upset.” “I feel so sad for the families.” What’s most important is letting your child know you are available to listen. Things to consider:

  • The closer in proximity a child is to the physical event.
  • If the child personally knows the victim.
  • If the child is more sensitive or anxious in nature.
  • If the child has endured a recent trauma such as a parent’s deployment, a divorce, a death.
  • If the child identifies with the victim (such as same age, gender, or other characteristic).

4. Offer age-appropriate information. Tailor facts to the child’s level of understanding. The American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry offers these tips:

Preschool. Don’t assume that your child has not heard about this event. And don’t be surprised if he keeps asking the same questions. Young children often ask the same questions repeatedly as a way to process information. Answer calmly with brief responses. Encourage them to ask as often as they need.  Research shows that younger children do not have the cognitive understanding to recognize that the televised images may be repeats, and assume the tragedy is happening live. 

Ages 5 to 9: This age is curious and tries to make sense of tragedy. Questions might include. “Why do people kill? Why did that boy want to kill those kids?” “Why are people so mean?” Be honest if you don’t know. Don’t be turned off by those questions. You want your kids to ask, and keep asking.

Ages 10 to 12: They may not want to chat but it doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about the tragedy. An opener such as: “What are your friends saying?” may begin the conversation.

Age 13 and over: They may try to minimize the event. Tune in. Most teens can be involved in discussions and stimulating conversations can result. Teachers, coaches, scout masters, camp directors may also be discussing this with your tween or teen so you can spin off: “What have you heard?” Or use a newspaper clipping about the tragedy to begin the chat.. 

5. Limit or monitor troubling news. Horrific images are troubling. If your kids do watch the news, watch with them to answer questions. Do limit media exposure. Don’t assume that your child will not be affected. A survey of middle school children found that one of their biggest fears was  late-breaking news reports without an adult there to interpret it for them. Be there! 

6. Comfort with family activities. In times of stress, kids need to feel embraced by their family to help them safe and feel “We’re in this together.” Find tension-releasing activities to do with your kids: Take walks or bike rides, pray or meditate, listen to soothing music or watch humorous videos. The engage in—or create—comforting family traditions: Attend a religious service, do family hugs, or light a nightly candle to convey your sorrow for victims.

7. Stick to routines. It is soothing to kids to know that life continues even though the news gives a different message.Routines reduce anxiety.and sends message that even during a tragedy parents keep going to work,kids go to school, and the world goes on. 

8. Tune in closer to anxious kids.  If you see anxiety, stress and pessimism, linger, become more pronounced, spill over into other areas of your child’s life and you worry that it may be depression please call for the help of a mental health professional.

9. Be proactive. Channeling  frustrations into positive activism can be healing and may even galvanize positive change like the Parkland High School students. Finding proactive ways to a problem helps kids to realize they can make a difference in a world that might appear scary or unsafe. If your teen is upset, encourage him to write to his congressman or post his concerns. Get a group of kids together and discuss what can be done.

10. Point out heroism and helpers. Draw your child’s attention to stories of heroism and compassion: teachers, police, ambulance drivers, parents, paramedics, doctors–everyone who was at the scene who tried to help. Point out simple gestures of compassion, love and hope that people do for one another. Find stories of compassion in the newspaper and share them.  Many families call those “Good News Reports.”

11. Help your child find proactive ways to cope.  For instance: Pray as a family. Attend a service together. Light candles. Doing pro-active gestures are empowering to kids. Your family ritual will help children adopt a coping skill that they can use to handle tragic events now and later.

It’s important to assure your children that there’s more to the world than violence, hate and fear. There is also compassion, and love, and hope.  Help your child see the world as a hopeful place. And our children deserve hope.

Now go hug your kids!

For more evidence-based ways to help children cope and build resilience, refer to my new book, Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine (in paperback March 2022). It explains why the old markers of accomplishment (grades, test scores) are no longer reliable predictors of success in the 21st century — and offers 7 teachable strengths that boost children’s potential to thrive and safeguard them in the future.

Dr. Michele Borba. Follow me on twitter  @MicheleBorba