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Talking to Children about Tragedies in the News

Talking to Children about Tragedies in the News

The 2014 Boston Marathon and the one-year anniversary of last year’s Boston Marathon bombings has had me thinking a lot about how my husband and I talk to our kids about difficult subjects, especially those in the news. For us, the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings came just weeks after the funeral services for two Boston firefighters who lost their lives in a nine-alarm blaze. Our daughter, who is 7, had seen a picture on the front page of the paper of one of the caskets being unloaded from a fire truck. My daughter asked what it was. My husband, who is all about avoidance when it comes to these sorts of things, said, “a box.” My daughter, who is clearly a little smarter  than her father gives her credit for, probed further. My husband, in his urgency not to say too much, ended up saying, “Well, sometimes people go to work and they have accidents and they die.” Seriously? I call that an epic parenting fail. In order to not worry her about the truth, he instead gives her fodder to worry every time her parents head to the office. As the conversation went on, it became clear that our daughter already knew about the firefighters, one of whom grew up and was buried about a mile from our house.

I had a similar foible later in the day when I went to pick up my 3-year-old son. As a general rule, I do not listen to the news when I have the kids in the car. But that day I really wanted to know what the weather was going to be like because I had an outdoor event pending. I knew it was highly likely we’d hear news of the Boston fire, but I took the risk, rationalizing that my son, at 3, wouldn’t know what they were talking about or wouldn’t be paying attention. Stupid move. As soon as I turned on the radio they were talking about memorial services and my son asked, “Why they saying ‘Boston firefighters?”

Fact is, our kids know more than we give them credit for, and they deserve for us to talk to them sensitively, age appropriately, but straight, even, or perhaps especially, when tragedy strikes.

So for my son, I could tell him: “Two firefighters in Boston helped save people. They were heroes.” It was true. He needed no more.

For my daughter, I had a more thoughtful conversation with her about the fire to follow her father’s stumbling attempt, and after a few minutes, she said to me, “Can we stop talking about this?” That was her sign that she had reached her limit of what she could process.

And then and there I knew what to do about the Boston Marathon this year and the coverage of the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings.

For my 3-year-old, I would be smart enough to leave the radio and TV off when he’s around. For my 7-year-old, I would find something positive and inspirational to focus on, like the story of Adrianne Haslet-Davis, the dancer who is now dancing on a prosthetic leg. And we will focus on how cool her leg is, and how beautiful a dancer she is, and how lucky she is to dance on a leg like that. And if my daughter asks if we can stop talking about it, then we’ll stop. And if she keeps the conversation alive, we’ll have 264 inspirational stories to keep us going and to keep us Boston Strong.

Boston Marathon Bombings Memorial in Boston, MA


  • Talking to Children about Tragedy: Resources for families, teachers, and caregivers who are working to help children cope with difficult situations, natural disasters and crises.

One comment

  1. Molly Skyar April 21, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    Very emotional piece and I admire your ability to speak honestly about tough subjects with your kids. Back during the Newton shootings in 2012, we had a parent ask Dr. Susan Rutherford (clinical psychologist) how to talk to kids about tragedy You were right to stop when your child had enough to process but I agree, at that age, there are ways to talk about it that can help and turn it into a learning experience without traumatizing them. Thanks so much for sharing!

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