Expert gives tips on speaking to children about tragic events

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Your child saw a frightening story on the evening news. How do you respond to your child's questions?

According to Robin Welsh, M.D., Palmetto Health Children's Hospital's child and adolescent psychiatrist and director of the Child Development and Behavioral Health Clinic at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine's Department of Pediatrics, the main thing to keep in mind is that children look to their parents and base their reactions on how their parents react to the news.

"Limiting access to television and the internet is always wise," Welsh said. "Obviously, you can't control everything your child sees or hears, so if you know your child is upset about a news story, sit down with them and talk about their feelings. Always be mindful that your child is watching how you react. They are very aware of your expressions and your tone of voice and will look to you to know how they should feel."

"When there is a tragic event, your child is wondering if he or she is safe. Take time to reassure them that they are in a safe environment, and go over safety information and procedures in case they ever feel unsafe," Welsh said.

"Children see so much violence and conflict on cartoons and TV shows that at some ages, children may not be able to separate fiction from reality," Welsh said. "Their responses and your explanations will be age specific. For example, children typically can't conceive of death as being irreversible until about six to seven years old. Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate for your child's level of development."

Welsh said that when people do senseless things, there is no explanation, and it is OK for parents to admit that they are sad about the news story and that they don't understand why it happened.

Welsh offers these tips:

  •  If your child asks questions, take the time to answer and help calm your child's fears;
  •  Give no more information than necessary to answer questions and address fears;
  •  The younger the child, the simpler the explanation;
  •  Be reassuring; and
  •  Limit access to TV news, internet news and adult conversations in the home about the event. Look for the positive things that often happen after a tragedy, and discuss them with your child.

Editor's note: Welsh is a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist who has practiced in the Midlands area for the past 23 years. She has served in the public, private and academic sectors of child and adolescent psychiatry and is the director of University of South Carolina School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, Division of Child Development and Behavioral Health. She also is one of the physicians on the Palmetto Health Children's Hospital Pediatric Palliative Care Team.