Resources for Helping Children with Tragic Events in the News

Hedda SharapanWhenever there’s tragedy in the news, like the recent Tucson shootings, I worry about how young children interpret (and misinterpret) what they hear – not only from the news but also from the conversations of the adults around them. And I’m concerned that we’re all tangled in our own emotional reactions, and that makes it even harder to talk about with a child.

Over the years many people have been grateful for Fred Rogers’ reassuring help with difficult issues. He certainly was a pioneer in addressing children’s concerns about tragic news events, beginning with his response to Robert Kennedy’s assassination to his calming and thoughtful insight during the War in the Persian Gulf, September 11 and Hurricane Katrina.

Some of our resources to help children with scary news are now available on our website. We hope you’ll find them helpful, that you’ll pass them on to parents and others who work with children, and that you’ll keep this site in mind whenever you’re looking for reassuring ways to help children through difficult situations.

I also wanted to share with you a video resource that can be directly helpful for you in your work. Have you ever been in circle time and had one of those terribly uncomfortable moments when a child told you about some family tragedy or even a shooting that’s affected him or her personally? In the video you’ll hear from caregivers who have had that experience and have worked on how to deal with it sensitively. This video clip is from our Safe Havens professional development material for people who work with children in communities where there’s violence.

Be prepared.

Think about addressing this in a staff meeting in the near future. It can help to set aside some time to talk about how to handle moments like that, so you are less likely to be caught off guard. Children feel safer when the adults aren’t flustered by something they’ve said.

Take a deep breath.

In our “Mad Feelings” workshop, we help people understand that whenever we get anxious, upset, or angry, our stress hormones kick in. Then we’re working from the most primitive part of our brain (the “fight or flight” part), and the logical thinking part of our brain turns off. It’s hard for any of us to think clearly when we’re upset. But when we take a deep breath, we get more relaxed, the stress hormones decrease, and then we are more likely to think clearly about how to respond.

Look around to see how the other children are responding.

Is it just that one child who needs help dealing with it? You can better judge that by watching for signs of anxiety from the others. Being a careful observer always helps.

If you sense there are others who are upset, too, it can help to acknowledge their feelings. You could say something like, “Some things are sad and scary,” and then have a discussion about what helps when they need comfort and reassurance.

Acknowledge what the child has said.

I know how tempting it is to try to avoid difficult subjects and move on, but it’s important that children know you care about what they say and feel. Here are some things a caregiver said on the video: “ I'm so glad you told me that. I want to hear more about it, so we're going to talk more about it later." You have your own ways of letting the children know you are there for them.

If you feel the child can’t wait until later to talk with you, ask someone to be with the other children so you can listen one-on-one. That lets all the children know that their concerns, feelings, and needs really matter to you, and that will go a long way toward strengthening your relationship with all the children.

You don’t need answers.

Even on the episodes Fred Rogers made about dealing with death, he told his viewers that there are some things that even he, now as an adult, doesn’t understand. He also often reminded us that “whatever is mentionable can be more manageable.” What’s important in that conversation is to give permission for children to talk about their story and to let them know their feelings are natural and normal. When we say to someone, young or old, “Tell me more,” we’re letting them know that we really care.

Here at The Fred Rogers Company, our thoughts and prayers are with the families who were affected by the tragic shootings in Tucson. And we all hope for peaceful days ahead.

P.S. I’ll be speaking in the Chicago area at the end of this month, and I’d love to meet you if you’re at any of these events:

Thursday, Jan. 27 Networking dinner for the Winnetka Alliance for Early Childhood - “Through the Eyes of a Child”

Friday morning, Jan. 28 Parenting session for the Winnetka Alliance - “Helping children deal with their angry feelings”

Saturday morning, Jan. 29 Chicago Metro AEYC Workshop - “Helping children WANT to become readers and writers: The Journey to Literacy from Infancy to the Preschool Years”

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