Speaking To Our Children About The Unspeakable

Here are nine ways to help your child cope when tragedy unfolds

Speaking To Our Children About The Unspeakable


“She said, “If people are going to keep doing that, I wish I’d never been born.

I sat on the floor and held her tightly to keep my own spirit from draining through the soles of my feet. I don’t know what other mothers say at such moments; … But my children have never been people I could lie to. My best revenge against all the dishonesty and hatred in the world, it seems to me, will be to raise right up through the middle of it these honest and loving children.”

~ Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder


How do we speak to our children about the unspeakable?

I am not a doctor, nor a child psychologist, nor an expert. But as a mother I have had to answer this question too many times in the last dozen years and more.

Terrorism. Bombs. Tsunami. The sudden death of loved ones. Earthquake. Hate crimes. Teen suicide played out on the Internet. Now (even typing the words seems beyond my ken) the senseless murder of young children and their teachers in their schoolrooms.

RELATED: How We View Tragedy On Social Media

Tragedies like these and the depth of the pain and the suffering that are the inevitable consequence all pose questions with no good answers, often with no answers at all, but it is human nature to want explanations. To need to understand. This basic drive is why we have rituals around grief; we need to make some sense of it, and if there is no sense to be found, then at least we seek to find footholds as we try to move forward.

Our drive as parents to shield our kids from pain and suffering, to protect the innocence of their childhoods and preserve their sense of optimism and hope for their future feels like one of our most sacred responsibilities as a parent.

There are, however, no footholds when something like the collapse of the Twin Towers happens, or when atrocities against human rights are committed, when destructive acts of nature tear away our security, when senseless lethal violence occurs. Tragedy on these scales buckles the capacity for comprehension in adults, never mind in children. The world in which we live is such that we know about these things in relentless detail. Like it or not our kids, especially pre-teens and teenagers, are influenced and sometimes sideswiped by social media. We cannot avoid the news they will inevitably hear, even our little ones watch and listen, and so I believe it is better that they hear it from us.

Be Internet savvy

News spreads like wildfires across the social media platforms on which our children participate. There is plenty of misinformation out there. Make it your business to know the right story and help them learn how to interpret information.


Follow their lead

A good friend of mine teaches sex ed. From her I learned that elementary school kids, then pre-teens and teens will ask when they are ready for the information. If you make sure they know the channel of communication is always open and that you are willing to have even the difficult conversations, they will know it is okay to come to you with questions when they are ready. I believe the same is true of the most painful questions of all. Don’t foist the discussion upon your kids, the time to talk about the hard stuff will come, and when it does be ready, as calm as you can manage, and open.


Know where you stand but let them find their way

Create an environment for discussion.  Look for opportunities to let your kids express their thoughts and vent their feelings around a troubling issue. It is tempting to “solve” it for them emotionally, but they have to find a way to sort through the information and come to their own conclusions. Share your morals, your emotions, and interpretations but give them room to compare their own response to yours. You are their compass but they have to learn the resilience to find their own way through the dark woods. 


Let them see you cry

Our children take their cues from us. I was in high school when the sibling of one of our peers was stalked and killed by someone she knew. The adults around us closed ranks. They wanted to protect us from the fear, horror and confusion they themselves were feeling but by not allowing us to see their grief, our own healthy, normative responses were shut down. I think we as a culture know better now, but I also think it is natural to want to hide the frightful things from our children lest they become afraid. The sometimes-challenging truth is that the monster in the closet is much worse than the monster you can see.


Break the rules but keep the routines

If a day at home or a night tucked in together feels like the right thing to do, then trust your instincts. Be there for your kids, even if there is just on the couch, doing something totally distracting. Hug them, help them to feel connected. Routine, however, is very important to maintain in order for life to feel normal, consistent, and manageable


Find the good

There is good. Or there will be. Somehow. Eventually. Even in the moment of the tragedy, there are heroes, small miracles, stories of hope and endurance. Our media tends to focus on The Story, not on the individuals. The sensational nature of the event is played up for ratings but the personal stories are where we find hope, humanity, the footholds to healing. Rumi wrote: “Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.” Look for it. Help your kids to find it. And if, in the moment or dark stretch of time to come there seems to be no hope, do not stop looking for the light.


Seek help

If you feel your child is suffering anxiety, night terrors, avoidance, panic, unexplained stomach aches, or their behaviour changes, seek help from someone who can guide you as you try to help them. And if they are not able to accept guidance from you find someone they can trust—a councilor, a psychologist, a therapist. Patterns of avoidance and fear are hard to un-do if they get entrenched.



Books can help. Barbara Kingsolver’s collection of essays Small Wonder written in response to 9/11 is one I return to again and again. Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies is good for taking heart. Kitchen Table Wisdom, Stories That Heal or My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen are both lovely responses of some of life’s biggest challenges. Mature teenagers could handle the material in both books as well. Many current and classic YA books explore difficult emotional situations courageously, and the theme of light vanquishing the darkness runs through much of the literature for kids and teens. Read them to or alongside your kids. Keep braving the conversation.


Keep reaching for the light.