Talking To Children About Tragedies

Today is September 11, and many of our minds are circling back to stories of tragedy, loss, and grief. My heart feels heavy, and it isn’t just this singular event, or the wars that have followed, but devastation around the world: the haunting picture of the two-year-old boy who drowned while trying to flee Syria with his family, stories marking the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Facebook posts from friends doing relief work in Nepal following the earthquake.

This morning, I read an article in Brain, Child magazine about what it was like to be a mother in New York on the morning of 9/11, and I once again feel overwhelmed by the staggering hurt and pain that exists in the world. Reconciling the gap between my life and the lives in the stories I have recently encountered is impossible.

I write these sentences on my computer, in my apartment in Switzerland, with food in the refrigerator, and clean water ready at a moment’s notice. The issues concerning me today are a never-ending mountain of laundry, leaving on time to pick my children up from school, and addressing unfinished writing projects on my to-do list.

My life seems so vastly different from the lives I read about that at times, it is hard to connect.

Until images and stories of children remind me that at the heart of these stories are human lives: children, families, communities, nations.

But what about our children? How do we handle trauma with kids?

Presence with children. It is easy for adults to get distracted while waiting for news to unfold. As must as possible, restricting the 24-hour news coverage helps maintain an atmosphere of routine for children. When tragedy strikes, we must work hard to maintain presence with our children. As Susan Buttenwieser writes,

Maybe there is more to being a mom than craft projects and baking. And maybe what your daughter really needs is for you to stay focused on what is right in front of you: her.

Honoring Our Needs. Sometimes, particularly when tragedy strikes close to home, we must spend time on the phone with loved ones or check for news updates. Taking care of ourselves while remaining present with children is sometimes challenging, but we must bring our whole selves, our grieving, worried, or preoccupied selves into those relationships of presence. And when we bring our whole selves into relationship with children, children are remarkably empathetic.

Give age appropriate information in supported environments. When children are met with scary events, it is important that they can trust the adults in their lives to be honest with them.

Be careful about television. Children often interpret television news replays as novel events. Each time they see a plane crash into a building, they think it’s a new plane and a new building. Consider turning to written sources for news updates or wait to watch video clips until you can preview them before children see them.

Let them PLAY!  One of the most powerful things that children can do to process tragedy is to play. Consider how children play “doctor” right after yearly checkups, or “family” when a peer has a new sibling. Add props to dramatic play that assists children in constructing a play world, and then give them time and space to weave a play theme.

Share stories of hope, and find ways for children to be involved. In the face of tragedy, we seek ways to effect change in our neighborhoods and around the world – through acts of financial generosity, or bold hospitality, or radical creativity, or ingenious community building. Find ways to bring children into that process, demonstrating that they can make a difference.

Other helpful resources:

Children With Big Fears

I receive questions from parents and educators on a regular basis, and often think – Well, I know what I would do, but how would someone else respond?   Our tools and strategies are embedded in our own cultural background and adapt to fit the needs of our individual children.  One person could never have the answers for every situation! 

When I read this question about childhood fears, I invited four wise early childhood professionals to offer a range of perspectives on how to they might respond.  I hope you find some strategies and tools from the following mix of responses that might help you in your journey.  If you have a difficult situation with your children and need some ideas, please contact me.

“Dear Emily,

Rhea* has a fear of flying. The last time she flew was on a five hour flight when she was three.  She was nervous, but when the flight came, it was largely uneventful.  A few months ago we were supposed to fly to visit my parents. Rhea had made some comments about not wanting to fly. We bought her some toy airplanes and we talked about what it would be like and I really thought she would be fine. Well…she wasn’t.

Long story short, we had to get off the plane because she would not stay seated – her fear was too intense.  We are planning a trip in six months to be with family.  Rhea has been saying that she isn’t going to go. She says we can go without her, or we can have our family reunion closer to home.  She is only four, and I don’t think she has any concept of airplanes crashing.  I don’t think that’s at the root of her fear.  In her words, she is afraid of going high and fast.  Do you have any advice on how we can help her overcome this?”

Ijumaa Jordan

Childhood fears are common and a normal part of child development. The world is a big and complex place and children have very little control and power over it. At the same time these childhood fears can be perplexing for adults because they don’t make sense to us. Nevertheless, adults are charged with supporting children in overcoming these fears. From the description, I’m curious about the root of Rhea’s fear: what is scary about going high and fast? I would have several low-key conversations with her about that particular fear and fears in general.  Books can help with those conversations. Two books that I find useful are Courage by Bernard Weber and Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes.

Also, since your next trip is several months away I would begin to make a plan with Rhea about going on the plane ride, because staying home alone is not a choice. I would also play airplane and play being the passenger, the flight attendant, the pilots. This may help Rhea articulate some of her fears about traveling by plane.

Amanda Morgan, Not Just Cute

I would recommend using the technique Dr. Daniel Siegel calls “Name it to Tame it” in his book, The Whole-Brained Child.  You can read more about it in his book and many writings online (here’s one video that explains a bit about it as well as this one), but essentially, you would talk your child through your flight in storytelling fashion, step by detailed step, giving her the chance to “pause” and “skip” the parts of story when she feels scared as well as ask questions.  You could also tell the story of when she flew as a three year old, letting her tell part of the story as well.

This uses both the logical and emotional parts of her brain, which has a calming effect, but also gives her control of the story and an awareness of what will actually happen.  At the same time, it gives you insight into which parts she’s really afraid of.  When you isolate the moments that cause the most anxiety for her, you can reassure her and talk about strategies for dealing with those moments (squeezing your hand, holding a lovey, etc.) so that she has a plan for coping with anxious, worried feelings.

Kelly Matthews, A Place For You Early Childhood Consulting

Addressing issues like these outside of a relationship or context with the child/family is extremely difficult, but even outside of the context, my first impulse would be to try and normalize the object of the child’s fear (airplanes, in this example).  Adults can use books, small panes, stuffed plush planes, etc.  I think also writing a story with drawings, if possible, about that child and a plane riding experience that ends well (and is honest about the child’s discomfort) may be helpful to read at night.  Making a list about what might be scary about it – now that she isn’t on the plane – and working through those ideas can also be helpful.  

Heather Shumaker, Starlighting Mama

It is important to consider here that there might be a real fear of flying which might need different experts to weigh in, not necessarily parenting ones.  However, from a parenting perspective, I would suggest finding the real fear.  Sometimes it helps to do this with puppets instead of just talking and asking questions. The puppet can have a fear of airplanes and the child can help him out and offer comments and solutions. Kids often can help puppets even if they can’t help themselves.  Another approach is to say “you’re really afraid of airplanes. I wonder why?”  Young kids sometimes have bits of knowledge that confuse them.  For example, when I was 5, I was scared of my teacher.  I refused to touch or be near her. She had freckles all over her arms.  I though they were measles and that I would get a terrible disease if I went near her.  Sometimes kids have legitimate fears that can be explained if we understand the true root of the fear.

*Names have been changed.


A huge THANK YOU to my panel:

IMG_1807Ijumaa Jordan works as an early education consultant, focusing on the areas of play, social justice/anti-bias work, and reflective practice. She is a Harvest Resources Associate, adjunct instructor at Pacific Oaks college, and has worked in South Africa as a Lead Early Education Fellow.




AmandaMorgancirclepic cropAmanda Morgan is a graduate of Utah State University with BA in elementary and early childhood education and an MS in childhood development.  She currently teaches preschoolers and works as a consultant and trainer for a non-profit children’s organization.  She enjoys teaching other teachers and parents about child development and teaching strategies.


KellyKelly Matthews, owner of A Place For You Early Childhood Consulting in Oshkosh, WI joyfully explores learning with people of all ages. A popular ECE speaker, Kelly gets to travel and meet with early educators across the country, creating professional development sessions that make room for teachers’ voices, thoughts, and full selves. Kelly is also proud to be one of the Harvest Resources Associates.


Heather Shumaker 2012_27 4x5 colorHeather Shumaker is the author of It’s OK NOT to Share…And Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids (Tarcher/ Penguin, 2012) which was named one of the Best Parenting Books of 2012 by Parents magazine. She’s been featured in Huffington Post, New York Post, Parenting,,, and other outlets.