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Talking to Kids About Tragedy: 7 Things

  • Debbie McDaniel

    Debbie's HeadshotDebbie McDaniel is a writer, pastor's wife, and mom to three amazing kids (and a lot of pets). Join her each morning on Fresh Day Ahead's Facebook page for daily encouragement in living…

  • Updated Nov 16, 2015

“So, what do I tell my kids?”  If you've been a parent for very long, odds are you've asked that question at some point along the way. On the heels of tragedy, terrorist attacks, or difficult stories that may strike far too close to home, the answers often don't come easily. “How much is too much” or “should I say anything at all?”  “I don’t want them to be bothered by it. I don’t want them to think about it.”

But the truth is, they do think about it. They do hear things. And they look to us for understanding, for answers, for reassurance though the tragic events of life, that often seem to have no words to even begin to explain the mess of it all.

I found myself there a few years back, right in the midst of it all.

I was still searching for words early one morning, unable to wrap my mind around the senselessness of the horrific story I'd just heard.

Along with the news came feelings of raw emotion, heart-broken, spirit-grieved, over the very sad loss of a dear family in our neighborhood. 

Family of four, all murdered in their home one night. Mom, Dad, two precious boys - gone. Cold evil visited here, while we all slept. How could it have happened? Right here, so close, yet noone saw, noone heard.

The false notion of “safe neighborhood” had been shattered, gone forever.  We live in a place where these things never happen. And yet sadly, those things did happen. There was struggle in that new realization. It sunk deep.

As parents woke up to the grim news that morning, there was grief and many questions, the inability to wrap our minds around such a senseless, awful act.  And I’m sure every single one of us hugged our own precious ones a lot tighter that morning.

I tried to carefully and wisely form words at breakfast, for three young hearts that needed to hear something from us first, before they heard things at school. Hardest thing in the world to find words to communicate such tragedy, yet desperately wanting to protect young minds from knowing too much information.

As their faces grew numb, I could see the “how, why, when” all at work in their minds. My son, just 2nd grade then, was a classmate to one of these precious boys, whose life had been so crueely taken. With eyes cast down, he quietly shared, “Mom, he just told me at recess the other day, ‘Hey Noah, I’m going to be 8 years old in just 3 days.” I fought back tears as those words hit my heart. Hard. Heavy. 

God's whisper came. Quietly. Softly. Comforting. Truth that broke through the cold. Spoken to a mama’s heart that hurt for two boys whose desks would sit empty at school, who would no longer run at recess, and play with friends. For the boy who would never turn 8. The sudden awareness deep down in my soul that these precious children were now safe.


“My child, they are safe, they are safe, they are safe with Me, and they still run…”

I swallowed hard, then spoke those words out loud, to three hearts who needed to know.

“They are safe with our Savior. Though we can’t understand why bad things happen, and we can’t change them, no matter how much we wish we could, we know that here on earth, and later in Heaven where we’ll still run, we are always, always safe with our God.”

It’s often at these times when the “why” seems so hard to grasp, and our minds can’t quite wrap around such senseless acts, that I’m reminded of some of the most important things in life. Those things we might take for granted many days. 

Life is precious.

Hug your kids and those you love. 

Tell your family how much you love them. 

Thank God that you have today. 

Make every day count, for Him.

And it’s in these reminders, that some of us may start to struggle, in the aftermath of the grief and tragedy. This overriding, pressing question begs for an answer, “So, what do we tell our kids?”

7 thoughts that may help:

1. Turn off the news. Be careful not to surround yourselves constantly in media hype. Be protective over how much your children hear from all the “outside noise” and in what you’re choosing to listen to.

2. Be honest. Don’t feel the need to cover truth in order to protect your kids, but be wise and careful with what or how many details your share. Often kids just want to know “what happened,” they’re not really asking about all of the details surrounding the event. Ask God for wisdom as you share. Follow your kids lead as to what specifically they are asking to know.

3. Go on with normalcy, as much as possible.  As tough as it may be while you work through your own grief, remain calm and secure with them. Kids are such expert “readers” of our emotions, it’s OK to be sad, reflective – that’s honest. But resist the urge to be overly anxious and fearful, constantly talking about the story. They take their cues from us, as parents.

4. Remind them that they are safe. Remind them that even though we live in a world where, unfortunately, hard things sometimes do happen, we can fully trust in the fact that God is always with us, and in that reminder, is a deep sense of security that the world can't provide. We are never outside His care. We do not have to walk in fear.

5. Validate their feelings and thoughts. Listen to them. You may not even want to talk about difficult things, but make sure you’ve given them some time to work it through. Often for kids, based on their ages, we may find that simply drawing a picture, writing a note or letter, and being able to ask more questions as the days go by, brings healing, comfort, security. Resist the urge to just quickly sweep things under the rug. 

6. Remind your kids how incredibly important they are to you, and to God. Hug them. Tell them you love them.  Remind them that you are strong together and that you will be there for one another no matter what.

7. Keep conversations open-ended. Remember that, like many things in life, having ongoing conversations are sometimes more important and meaningful over time than just one “big” conversation. Don’t be afraid to talk about hard topics. Fear. Death. Eternity. Heaven.  Open the doors for more discussions.  You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar. It’s OK to say, “I’m not sure, but that’s such a great question, let’s search for the answer.”

In the midst of this crazy world, the fear level raises. But we can be confident that we do not have to walk in a spirit of fear. We live with a deep awareness that in this world, there is good, and there is evil. We're in a spiritual battle and real suffering does exist.

Yet one Truth still shines through in it all, God is greater. 

And in the end, evil will not win.

Praying for God’s mercy to cover us…always. We are safe with Him. Our children are safe with Him. He is close. And He knows and sees all.

"You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world."  1 John 4:4

"Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil..." Ps. 23:4

"For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open." Luke 8:17

(This article first appeared at

Debbie McDaniel is a writer, pastor's wife, mom to three amazing kids (and a lot of pets). Join her each morning on Fresh Day Ahead's facebook page, DebbieWebbMcDaniel, for daily encouragement in living strong, free, hope-filled lives. 
Find her also at Twitter.