There was a question in a local forum for mums asking whether and how to tell an 8 year old child about the tragic events on Friday. These are the questions that parents are grappling with here in New Zealand. It takes courage for us to talk to our children about sensitive topics. We can be afraid of getting stuck. When we push past our concern we are showing our child that we are the trusted and safe person they can come to.

Think of beginning the conversation as planting the seed for a robust relationship in which we can talk about the full range of topics. Talking about what happened is an important discussion to have. Don’t think it is too late to have this talk over the coming days. Do read the information that has been posted about what to say and how to say it and have a good think about it before you do it. Plan a time when everyone is calm to begin. Talk to whoever else is parenting with you to get a united front.

Our kids are watching how we react

Parents are deeply affected by what has happened so pay attention to these feelings. Our sadness can show up in different ways, including feeling more irritated than usual. Kids know when we are upset, even when we think we’re not showing it. My teen spotted this on our Saturday morning car trip “Maybe you’re worried you can’t protect us anymore Mum”. Parents need to try not to let our sensitivity overwhelm us and balance our reaction to distressing events. Think about the energy we are giving off.

How to tell an 8 year old child about what happened

Here’s a form of words to begin a conversation with an 8 year old. These words may not be the ones you choose the aim is to set the emotional tone of openness. Conversations on important and sensitive topics are not usually one-off discussions, but an ongoing dialogue. Let children know that our door is always open to talk about anything that affects them, especially on tough topics:

“You’ve been hearing people talk about how innocent people were shot and hurt in Christchurch last week. Some of the people who were hurt died. It is very sad and adults in NZ are sad about what has happened. When you hear about this it could make you think about whether you are safe and whether I am safe. It’s very important that you know that even though this has happened that you are safe. I need you to know that it’s my job to be the adult and that I am looking after you and that you are safe. Your job is to be a kid and to be kind to people and yourself. We can have more conversations about this and you can ask me questions when you need to.”

How to deal with questions or tricky responses

When children ask a question that you don’t know how to answer to right away validate their feelings. Keep your answers as honest as possible and focus on their feelings:

“I’m really glad you told me about how you feel and that you asked that question. You are feeling concerned/worried/uncertain/confused. I hope you keep talking to me about this.”

You can validate their feelings by saying it’s scary for adults to hear about what happened. Don’t say – “There is no reason to be scared.” The reason parents say this is that we are worried that if we acknowledge their fears that we will be causing the fear to worsen. People think of this as “opening a can of worms”. My experience and training is that kids will either have a feeling or they won’t. When our child tells us how they feel – especially if it’s a negative feeling like fear we need to acknowledge their courage for telling us:

“Wow you are brave to tell me that”.

When we listen with empathy to children sharing feelings we aren’t just helping them to process what has happened we are helping them learn that we are their safe, trusted people and we can help them navigate their way through the feeling.

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