Up to four years:
Small children have trouble separating facts from fantasy, so for young ones, it might be best to shield them from traumatic events as much as you can. If they have questions, it’s important to answer them, but only in as much detail as you need to reassure them and help them feel safe.
Let your kids lead the conversation here. If they’re talking, that’s important. They want you to help them feel safe. On the surface they’ll be asking what happened, but the driving force will be understanding what it means for them. How does it affect them? Could it happen to them? What if it happens to someone they love? How do you know it won’t happen again? They’ll be looking for comfort and your willingness to talk to them will give them this. Give them the details they ask for, but you don’t need to give them more than that. Don’t lie to them or avoid their direct questions. They’ll be able to tell when you’re not being upfront and this will only make it more difficult to take comfort from your answers.
Because a lot of their lives happen when we aren’t there – through social media, at school, at friends’ houses – it’s difficult to know exactly how much they understand about what’s happening or what they’re worried about. Listen, and they will usually show you. The clues will be in their questions or their misunderstandings, or the incidental things they say along the way. The most important thing is letting them know that you’re there for them if they need to talk or ask questions.
At this age, they’re starting to think about things in creative, abstract ways so it can be difficult to anticipate what they’re thinking or feeling. Sometimes the way they think will surprise you. Let them know that this sort of thing is confusing for everyone and there’s absolutely nothing they can say or think that would be silly. What’s important is that you clear up any misunderstandings or misconceptions, and give them a balanced view of what has happened. “This is tragic, and I understand why you feel the way you do. The world is still a good place and you still have as much reason to feel safe now as you did before.” There is no formula for how people react in these situations. Given that the emotional centres of kids' brains are developing at a heightened rate during adolescence, it might be that they show a greater intensity of fear, anger or sadness. They might also show no emotion at all to the news. That’s completely okay and is nothing to worry about. Open the way for them to talk, but don’t push them if they don’t want to – “Did you hear about what happened? Is there anything you were wondering about or would like to talk about?”
Above 14 years:
They’ll most likely be hearing a lot of information through friends and social media, so it’s important to make sure the information they have is accurate. Ask them if they’ve heard about what happened and what they know about it.
By this age, they’ll be starting to separate from you and turning to their peers to meet their needs. Don’t worry at all if they don’t want to talk about things. When they need comfort or conversation, it’s very normal for them to turn to friends. They might also seem even more attached to their phone. People feel safest in groups, and at this age, their friendship groups are everything - it’s just how they find stability and comfort, which they might need if the world seems crazy for a while.
Don’t say things you don’t believe and don’t give them empty platitudes. They’re too smart and it will cheapen everything else you say. Let them know that you wish you had the answers and that you wish you could say nothing like this will happen again, but you can’t say that – nobody can. Let them know that these things are rare and remind them how their situation is different.
Share how you feel, but don’t look to them for comfort. It will be comforting for them to know that you feel the things they feel, but they also need to know that you feel safe and strong. Sometimes, with this age group it is best to have these sorts of conversations when they don’t have to make eye contact with you – while you are in the car together or while you’re cooking dinner. Others might like to feel your closeness. Let them take the lead on that.