How to Talk to Kids When Bad Things Happen

The news coming from Israel is devastating, and all of us are broken-hearted. First and foremost, we hope everyone has been able to reach family and friends in Israel and that they are safe. If your family is grieving the loss of relatives or friends, please reach out for support. This is a devastating time, truly without words.

If you are like us, you may feel uncertain, and it is fair to wonder what's next from here. Here are some suggestions for conversations with children about tragic and difficult news, which have been adapted from Dr. Becky Kennedy's Guide for When Bad Things Happen. There is no one "right" way to navigate through this time.

Please use this as a resource and trust your instincts—you know your family best.

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First, take care of yourself. You may find it more natural to think about your child's needs than your own.

  • Pause. Take a deep breath. Check in with yourself. What comes up for you? What do you need?
  • It's okay to be angry. It's okay to be sad. It's okay to be numb. It's okay to cry. Whatever you are feeling is okay and makes sense.
  • Taking care of yourself is the first step to showing up as a sturdy presence for your child.

Set the emotional tone by speaking matter-of-factly and talking authentically about how sad the situation is while remaining calm.

  • Start slow. "I want to talk about something serious that may bring up big feelings for all of us."
  • Talk slowly and maintain eye contact. This helps keep a connection and for children to feel safer. 
  • Focus on the facts rather than speculation or opinions.

Respond mostly to what children already know (or think they know) before going into much detail. When children have incorrect information, it's okay to correct it.

Share only developmentally appropriate information. At the same time, remember that they will likely hear information from other sources, and this is your opportunity to frame the information and clarify it for them.

You do not need to answer every question. It's OK to say, "I don't know," or redirect the conversation if they begin to speculate or it becomes unhelpful.

Support and empathize with their emotions. It is normal for children to have different reactions, ranging from indifference to fear to sadness.

  • Pause and ask, "What's it like to talk about this?" It's okay if your child remains silent. You can share, "I know this is heavy and hard to talk about."
  • If they become upset, give permission for the feeling and name your presence. "It's okay to feel sad about this. I'm right here with you."
  • There is no need to force the conversation if they don't want to discuss it. Just say, "I'm here if you want to talk."

Tolerate discomfort. Resist the urge to make it neat and tied up.

  • It's okay to cry. You can say, "Our tears tell us that our body is having an important reaction. That makes sense, given what we're talking about."
  • Leave room for questions and feelings. "We can keep talking about this, I'm sure you will have more questions and feelings come up. I'm here whenever that happens."

Though we cannot guarantee that tragedy will never strike our community, reassure them that this kind of event is very unusual and that their school and families take many safety measures to prevent this kind of thing from happening to them.

Limit exposure to media, especially videos and images; children cannot always contextualize them the way adults can.

Look for the helpers. Point out how first responders and ordinary citizens worked together to save as many people as possible.

Monitor your own stress level. Don't ignore your own feelings of anxiety, grief, and anger. Talking to friends, family members, religious leaders, and mental health counselors can help. It is okay to let your children know you are sad, and that you believe things will get better. You will be better able to support your children when you support yourself and your own emotions.

There is no "right way" to have this conversation. You know your family best. If you think your kids might hear this news from TV, friends, at school, or online, be prepared to have this conversation ahead of time; or be ready to have the discussion if they hear it elsewhere.

Clear, direct, and honest conversation shared while connected to a loving, trusting adult is what helps children feel safe and understand the world around them. 

Here are some articles about having these difficult conversations with your children:
Helping Children Cope with Frightening News
Helping Children Cope - Tips for Families and Educators

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) has also developed resources to help children and their families navigate what they are seeing and feeling, notably coping after mass violence.

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As a community experiencing tragedy, we know that many of us are on edge and feeling sad and scared. As a way to come together and process these feelings, we are offering the following opportunities:

Coffee, Conversation, and Community Support in the JCC Lobby
Oct 9–12, 4–6 pm 

Teen Talk: Israel at War
Oct 11, 5–6 pm
The JCC invites teens and tweens to Teen Talk to explore thoughts, feelings, and questions about the war. Join us if you are scared, sad, angry, confused, numb, or don’t know what you feel—all are welcome. This group will be facilitated by teen staff Naomi Skop Richter, LCSW; and JessAnn Smith, Social Work Intern. Email Naomi Skop Richter to register or join us.

Solidarity Shabbat—A Community Dinner for Families 
Oct 13, 6–8 pm
We invite you to join us this Friday evening for a special family Shabbat dinner, where we will gather in community for connection, togetherness, and song.

Security at the JCC remains a top priority in everything we do. Our Senior Director of Security, Sean O'Connor, and our large security force oversee our spaces with precision and skill. Sean, a 25-year veteran of the NYPD, retired in 2010 as a Lieutenant assigned to the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force. He is in close touch with all levels of law enforcement and community security initiatives and will update our security protocols if needed. We are grateful to all of you, our community members, for complying with our security procedures.

Please let us know if you have any questions or if we can support you in any way.

With hope,

Jacqueline Marks, Chief Children + Families Officer
Yael Kahn Pinto, Center for Family Life Director
Shari Pick Taishoff, Nursery School Director 
Genna Singer, Children + Families Deputy Director
Naomi Skop Richter, LMSW, Teen + Young Adult Mental Health Initiative Senior Director