What to Say When…Your Child Asks About a Tragic Event:

Limit media exposure. “You know that little game ‘Memory’ where you try to find the matching pairs?” says Deborah Best, Ph.D., developmental psychology professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “A preschool kid will beat you in a minute.” That’s because visual memory is particularly strong in little kids. Here’s an example: If you were a child when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, odds are you can visualize exactly how that wreckage looked in the sky. Try to avoid photographic and video exposure for young children and limit the constant replays for school-aged children.

Make your child feel safe. Even if the tragedy was close to home, you can still reassure your child. For example, if you live in or near New York City where the Twin Towers once stood, tell them the story of that day. “But you then explain that that was 10 years ago, and since then we’ve learned a great deal about how to protect ourselves from these things,” says Best. “Focus on protection and try to put the event in a distant box, so it’s not something that’s immediate and going to happen again.”

“I don’t know” is okay. Why did a wall of water kill thousands? Why did a madman open fire? As your child ages, the questions will become harder to answer. And it’s okay to say, “I don’t know,” says Best. “We don’t really know sometimes why tragedies happen, and it’s okay to admit that,” she says. Understanding that there isn’t always an answer is part of growing up.

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