Words for speechless moments

In the event of a national tragedy, we all struggle to find the right words to express our feelings, to provide comfort—to make some sense of it all. This can be especially difficult when talking with our children.

By Dr. Kyle Pruett


Dr. Kyle Pruett is Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center and School of Medicine. He is also past president of Zero to Three, the nation's largest think tank, research, and policy center for the first three years of life. He is the author of Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child.

Without warning, the news popped into the middle of innocuous morning kids' TV programming. My 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Olivia, and I were equally startled as the announcer stridently implored us to stay tuned. Stunned and horrified by the jagged, flaming hole in Building One, I thought I'd gotten the TV off soon enough, reassured that Olivia said little at the time. But by late afternoon, she was anxiously talking to anyone who would listen about "…New York, buildings breaked, planes crashed…." She'd either overheard one too many anxious conversations between her parents, or simply sensed the dark force that had intruded on her sweet, safe home. In the following days I heard dozens of friends' and parents' clamorous concerns about how to answer their kids' questions: "What happened to those buildings? Who did it? Why did they hate people so much to do that to our airplanes? Will this happen in Connecticut, too? Why would anyone do that? Can we help them, Daddy?"

Speechless about the unspeakable

From the events of September 11 to the horror of the latest kids-killing-other-kids scenario, parents face, and frequently are silenced by, their kids' impossible questions about the inhuman and unspeakable. What can one say? We feel speechless at such horrid moments because the events threaten the deepest level of our own emotional security, giving the lie to the one promise our children so desperately want us to honor above all others: your love will keep me safe with you—forever.

Keep it manageable

Hands down, the best way to keep this stuff in its place is through talking with and listening to what our kids think and feel about the bad stuff once it enters their world. It's a far better thing for children to hear life's hardest truths in manageable doses from the people who love them the most and know them the best.

So where to start? Anything you decide to say should fit the moral and values system in which you are already trying to raise your kids: golden rule, spirituality, humanism, religion—whatever you're using as a framework for raising compassionate humans. To get you started, here are some of my suggestions for forming your guidelines in talking with your kids about tragedy.

Talking about life's hard stuff

  1. Listen to what your child knows and thinks about the event. And I mean l-i-s-t-e-n, not just wait until it's your turn to preach. What your child says should be a major ingredient in planning your answer.
  2. Sort out your own feelings about the event before you head out onto the thinner ice of helping your child sort out his or her feelings. It's okay to tell your child you'll talk about "it" later, as long as you keep that promise in the very near future. None of us is so good on our feet or silver-tongued that we don't need some time to get our heads together when frightening images enter our homes.
  3. Get reliable information about the actual events (kids are sticklers for the truth), and then talk to your partner or a trusted friend to think through what you want your child to learn about life from this terrible experience. Even without guidance from you, your child will learn plenty anyway, so exploit the parental advantage and stack the explanation deck in the direction of your values.
  4. Remember who your child is. One size does not fit all in the answer world, and temperament rules. Some kids love details, the more ghoulish the better—it helps them file the event away under "so bizarre, it'll never happen here." Others cover their eyes or plug their ears the moment you begin to talk, telling you this is too much for them, even in small doses. Yet others are so compassionate they feel guilty before the story is finished. Some have spiritual approaches, others immanently practical. The stronger your kid's emotional reactions are in general, the more you need to listen, the closer you need to stick to the truth and the shorter you should keep your answer.

Consider your child's age

Your child's age and developmental level should also rule how you address his or her questions and concerns.

  • Preschool kids: 
Kids of this age think of a horrible event in terms of how it threatens the security of their loving relationships. They use a beginning understanding of what is right and wrong combined with a rock-solid conviction that bad things simply do not, and cannot, happen to good people. So keep it simple, with minimum facts consistent with the truth, and try to place it in a context of right and wrong—but only if it fits. If it doesn't, simply accept their confusion and move on. AFTER you've listened to your child, your answer might sound like this: "Some very bad people tried to get a lot of attention by hurting other people. Some of the people died. The police will catch the bad men, and make sure that they are punished."
  • School-age kids
: School-age kids are more moralizing, able to understand that other people have different opinions and minds, and can be severely judgmental of wrongdoing. They are just beginning to see that life is not universally fair and that bad things can and do happen to good people. The idea that death is permanent is dawning on them. Again, first listen to your child, and then assure them that the people who committed the terrible acts will be caught and punished.
  • Early teenage kids
: Early teens know that death is forever, even the good die young, parents no longer know everything (anything), that there is plenty of bigotry and evil around which they will already have personally experienced in (hopefully) small doses, and feel some stirrings of a desire to make the world a better place. After you've listened, remind them that while some people resort to violence, most people can and do find better ways to express themselves, and that good people work together for justice. 

Becoming part of the solution

After you've listened to and answered your child's questions, your last, but most vital job is to leave your child with the sense that something should and will be done about preventing this particular horror from ever happening again. Maybe your child would like to be part of some solution (write a letter, send a drawing, go to a meeting, comfort a friend, lobby for change). Actively responding is morally responsive and reduces the passive fear of victimization, erecting a small firewall between them and this particular fire next time. Hope beats despair easily at any age.