Talking About Tragic Events with Kids (Guest Post)

     Hardly a week goes by now that we don't hear about another school/campus shooting. My kids are concerned, sometimes even frightened, and it isn't always easy to answer their questions.
     After the Boston Marathon bombing, my friend, Chester Goad, wrote this post. The event is different and the time of year was different, but his advice readily applies. I hope it helps you walk through these events and emotions with your children. 
     Read about Chester at the end of this post.
(c) Carole Sparks
(c) Carole Sparks
A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret M. Holmes

Today I am taking a break from dyslexia, learning differences, and disabilities to address the tragic events that occurred in Boston at one of America’s most celebrated events. While we stand united in our grief, adults and children alike are all grappling for understanding.

It is important in times like this to remember that individuals respond to grief and difficult circumstances in a variety of ways. Children often try to filter and process what they have seen and heard through questioning. Others remain silent and keep their questions to themselves until they are ready to open up. That is why dialogue is so important. In reality, most school age children will be talking about this national crisis in class tomorrow morning and many are probably already texting through their emotions with close friends. It is also common for discipline problems to rise as students act out as they process their emotions. An extra ounce of grace and understanding is always helpful.

The key to successful, meaningful discussions with children is to allow plenty of time to absorb and discuss the issues. While it is mid-April and many school systems may be reviewing for annual standardized assessments, it is probably wise to take some time away from typical review sessions and allow ample time for group discussions, free-writing activities, and guidance. Encourage students to ask questions and reassure them that their questions and concerns are valid. Of course as the adult or parent you can set any perimeters, but your students or your children need to feel secure and safe to ask whatever may be on their hearts and minds.

The best advice for working through these types of events with children is to 1) communicate, 2) don’t offer more information than is necessary, and 3) gauge your age-appropriate responses carefully. A great rule of thumb for providing an age-appropriate response is to answer each question as deliberately, thoughtfully, and concisely as possible. In other words, don’t read too much into the question. Often, the question is simply the question. If students have more questions, they will ask them. It’s not necessary, and can be counterproductive to provide complicated or emotional responses. In fact, answering questions in a dramatic or provocative way can sometimes only serve to add more fuel to the anxiety students are already feeling.

As the adult, you set the mood in your home or in your classroom. Speak calmly and share your feelings in an honest and sincere way. Students need to see your human side and your strength. They need encouragement and reassurance. Listen to your kids and they will help you guide the conversation where it needs to go. Just remember it’s best to leave it where it goes until more questions are asked. Don’t forget reading books is always therapeutic, and there are many children’s books available that touch on issues of grief and sadly also terrorism. Depending on your belief system, prayer and spiritual discussions are almost always welcome and appreciated during times of grief and trouble. Students are often seeking deeper answers to their ever-deepening questions.

Below I have provided a list of resources for talking through tragedies and difficult circumstances with students. Please join me in lifting Boston, the victims and their families, our nation, and especially our children, up in prayer.


Talking about the Boston Marathon Explosions CBS

Talking to Kids about Scary Situations MSN

Tragedy and Children NPR (based on the Newtown Shootings)

Talking Violence with Children, National Association of School Psychologists

Boston Marathon, How to Talk to Your Kids about Tragedy, She Knows

Books to Help Kids Talk about Tragedy, GalleyCat (originally compiled for Newtown, CT)

Talking to Kids about Terrorism from American Academy of Pediatrics

Teachers Guide to Grief K-5, PBS

How to Talk to Kids about Tragedy in the Media Parenting Today

Learning from the Challenges of Our Times, New Jersey Schools

When Death Impacts Your School, The Dougy Center

Grief Suggestions for Teachers and Counselors,

Benefits of Play and Age-Specific Intervention, Prepare, Respond, Recover

Tips for Students in Unsettling Times, NASPOnline

The Best Resources For Helping Students Deal With Grief

21 Ways to Comfort Those Who are Suffering, (A great spiritual piece originally written for 9/11)

Resources: Talking and Teaching About The Shooting in Newtown, Connecticut Learning Network.

Unspeakable Tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School Edutopia

Helping Children Cope with Traumatic Events Share My Lesson.

How to talk to kids about violence is by Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post.

Dr. Steven Marans: Talking to children about violence

Talk to Your Kids About the Recent Violence  ABC News.

Kids, the Media and Tragedy: 5 Lessons I Learned From Columbine

chester goad smiling wearing glassesChester Goad is founder of The Edventurist blog, an adult living with ADD, a university administrator, writer, speaker, and disability advocate, who is committed to making life better and more fun for people with attention deficit and dyslexia. He is a licensed teacher, former school principal, and former youth pastor. Connect with Chester at



Update 7.12.16: With even more tragic news now, recently added How to Talk to Kids When Bad Things Happen. Check it out for age-specific advice.