Talking about a tragedy

STSquareLogoThe tragic death of 9-year-old twins Patrick and Tom O’Driscoll in Cork and their older brother Jonathan, is one of the most disturbing and heart-breaking news stories to read as a parent.

We struggle to comprehend what circumstances might have led to such a tragic event and what could have been the state of mind of their older brother.

It is difficult to comprehend the unbelievable shock the parents and extended family must feel and we can even become uneasy when thinking about whether something like this could happen closer to home.

Most difficult of all can be thinking how we might talk to our own children about what happened and below are some ideas on how to do this.

Protect young children from details of disturbing stories

Preschool and young children should generally be protected from the details and particularly any images of tragic and disturbing stories like this. In fact, I think there is no benefit in a young child hearing about the story at all and where possible I would protect them from this.

Though we are not in control of all the information they are exposed to, simple prudence in the home such as waiting until they are in bed before watching the news on television or listening to the story on the radio makes sense.

Answer questions according to their age

When children do hear about the story it is important to listen and to answer their questions according to their age and ability to understand. Sometimes a distraction might be sufficient: For example a young child might innocently ask: “How did those children die?” and it might be appropriate to simply distract them – “that happened far away, you don’t have to worry about that”.

With an older child it might be appropriate to give them more information about the circumstances, especially if they ask direct questions.

Certainly with older children and teenagers who are very much aware of the news and already discussing it with their peers, it is important to raise the news story directly with them and see what they think and feel.

This is your opportunity to communicate to them about handling troubling issues. The key is to first ask what they think and feel and then share your own thoughts – “it is very tragic what happened, it is a pity the older brother did not contact someone for help before he did something terrible like that”.

This can open important conversations about safety, seeking help in distress etc.

Watch for your child’s emotional reaction to the news

Whatever you communicate to them watch carefully for your child’s emotional reaction to the news. Some children are very matter of fact about what happened and move on quickly after a few details. For others the news might worry them and it is important then to encourage them to talk some more and then to be very reassuring and supportive.

For more information and related articles on talking to children

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