When tragedy happens, how to help children understand

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – As difficult as it may be, explaining tough topics in the news to children is something parents need to do, a communication expert says. 

The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Samantha J. Shebib, Ph.D., an expert in family communication and social support, offers her knowledge to help navigate these complicated and difficult conversations. 

Shebib emphasizes that, while it might be a hard topic to discuss with kids, it cannot be ignored. 

“Whether it’s social media, the news or through conversations with friends at school, children are going to hear about it, and sweeping it under the rug does not benefit the child,” Shebib said. “Children under the age of 8 will have a harder time processing the information; but there are still smaller conversations, like school safety protocols, that will benefit them.” 

Her first recommendation is for parents to start the conversation; but most importantly, let the children do much of the talking. 

“Let them express how they feel, their concerns and whatever it is they want to discuss,” Shebib said. “As a parent, it’s time to listen.” Try not to provide them with too much information up front; just listen to what they have to say. 

“Secondly, be careful of giving them untruthful support. Things like ‘this wouldn’t happen to you’ or ‘you won’t have to worry about this’ are some examples. The sad reality is, untruthful support is the least helpful and least effective support, and those statements are simply things we cannot say because we don’t know if that will be the reality. As we’ve seen, this can happen to anyone.” 

Shebib recommends acknowledging children’s fears by validating them. For example, “I completely understand your worries, and I’m always here to talk with you when you feel anxious or scared.” Shebib also thinks it is wise for parents to do their research and iterate the safety precautions taken at the school they attend. 

“This helps both the parent and child feel safer, and if the school needs to take more precautions, this would be an ideal time to attend your local school board meetings,” Shebib said. 

Middle or high school-age children may look for solutions to address the anxiety they are feeling. 

“Older children and even adults, for that matter, like to act because it feels good. It’s a way to channel our anxiety proactively,” according to Shebib, who is an assistant professor and associate scientist in the College of Arts and SciencesDepartment of Communication Studies and associate editor of Relationship Research News.  

Taking action and channeling that desire into something helpful also helps build resiliency. 

“Whether it’s participating in rallies, creating a support group or raising money for victims, all of these can be effective ways to channel this anxiety in a positive way,” she said. “But make sure, as a parent, you give yourself the time to process your emotions and anxiety, so it does not rub off onto the child.” 

Some anxiety is reasonable, given the circumstances. However, debilitating anxiety is not healthy. Parents should make sure children are coping, and if anxiety endures for a longer period, this is a sign to seek professional assistance, Shebib recommends.