An explosion at the end of an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena in the U.K. on Monday killed 22 people and injured scores more. Discussing that violence with your child may be difficult, but it’s also important, one expert tells PEOPLE.
“As parents, we love our kids and want to protect them from the harsh realities of life, but the fact is, our world is a different place now,” child development specialist Denise Daniels tells PEOPLE.
“So as parents we have to have a script or a blueprint ready to talk to them,” says Daniels, the founder of the nonprofit National Childhood Grief Institute.
“Kids went to bed last night or woke up this morning saying, ‘Could this happen to me?’ ” Daniels explains.
“We have to be talking to our children and to each other about what transpired and teach coping mechanisms,” she says.
General tips for speaking with children of all ages include remaining calm and beginning with questions to learn what they may already know about what happened — and what misconceptions they may have.
“I always like to ask, ‘What have you heard? What do you think happened? Why do you think that happened?’ ” Daniels says.
If they have questions and you can’t answer the questions, that’s okay, too, she says. “You say, ‘I don’t know the answer but together we will find out. We can go the Internet or the library, or we can talk to your teacher.’ ”
Daniels also notes that such discussions with your children will vary depending on their age: “There isn’t anything you can’t talk to your kids about, you just have to make sure the information is age appropriate.”
“When we start with our young ones, they need to be physically close to us so they can sit on our laps or right next to us while we talk to them,” Daniels says.
Minimize their exposure to the news at this age, she says.
“If they do see the news, one of the things we can say to them is, ‘Something terrible happened and the reason it’s on the news is because it’s such a rare occurrence.’ ” Daniels says.
“That puts it into perspective for them because as parents, we need to always put the world in context for our children.”
Daniels also advises reassuring your children that there are many people who are trying to keep others safe, such as police officers and firefighters.
For Elementary School Kids:
At this age, children are capable of more abstract thinking and understand the concept of death.
“It’s important to talk about kids about death,” Daniels says. “Don’t use euphemisms like ‘passed away.’ You can say some kids died and that there are some very bad people in the world, but there are more good people than bad.”
Kids this age are often helped by helping others, according to Daniels. “They can write notes of condolence or raise money as a class at school,” she says.
“This helps them feel like they can do something positive.”
For Middle and High School Students:
Teenagers have a more sophisticated and different understanding of world events, Daniels says.
They “are going to have opinions and are going to feel strongly about what happened and need to channel that energy and thoughts and emotions into something that is productive,” she says.
She likes to encourage teens to do something about the issue — and to talk about what happened.
“Allow them to express their feelings about it and hear their thoughts and share your thoughts.
When working with children of any age, validate their feelings first,” she says.
“You always want to give kids a way to express their feelings, whether through movement or art,” she explains. ” They don’t always have the vocabulary for what they are feeling.”
Being sad or angry or sullen “are all natural reactions to something like this,” she says.
Channeling anger into activities such as kicking a ball or running is healthy, she says. And keep an eye on a child who can’t seem to shake that sadness or melancholy.