Tips from experts: Talking about tragedy with kids

CINCINNATI -- "Mom, are bad people real?” 

That’s the question my 5-year-old asked me on our way home from school the other day. 

So far, in her little world, “bad people” have been mostly make believe characters in Disney movies and fairy tales.

She sprung the question on me after her kindergarten class had spent part of their day in ALICE training. That’s the drill schools in Ohio do now to protect students during an active shooter event. Or, as my daughter put it, “to keep us safe from bad guys.”

As she told me about the drill -- the barricading of doors with chairs and huddling together in a small bathroom -- I wondered if my husband and I made a terrible parenting mistake. Our daughter had lived five full years of life believing that bad people didn’t exist. 

And now, as she sat in her car seat playing with her pigtails and rattling off the ways she would defend herself from a bad guy, I realized I had done zero homework as a parent to prepare myself for these kinds of conversations.

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“Unfortunately, bad people are real,” I told her. “But there are a lot more good people than bad people.”

The answer seemed to be OK with her. 

On Monday, I woke up with the rest of the world to the news of horrific massacre that had unfolded overnight in Las Vegas.

As we turned on our TV for her morning cartoons, the graphic images were there. I quickly changed the channel, successfully avoiding another conversation about bad guys.

But I know I can’t shield her from the tragedies that unfold in this world much longer. She’ll hear things at school. She’ll see things outside our home. She’ll have more questions than I’ll have answers.  

I may never be able to explain to my children why some people are capable of inflicting such hurt, horror or fear, but I should be ready to have this conversation. 

So I set out to find some answers of my own. Turns out, there are loads of resources out there to help parents navigate these tough talks. 

“If they come home with questions, ask them what they already know so you can correct any misinformation and build off of that,” said Julie Bemerer, a psychologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “That way you’re not adding any more detail than what they already know.”

Limiting the images that kids see – especially young children – on TV and elsewhere is also recommended, Bemerer said. 

“Images can be more powerful than words," Bemerer said. "They get stuck in brains, and that can become problematic if they have an especially horrific image in their mind.”

If your child has already seen something, "watch it with them and help them process it by answering their questions,” Bemerer said.

But most importantly, be ready to listen.

"A lot of times kids, just like adults, want to know why certain things happened," she said. "Listening to their questions and helping them understand that sometimes we don't have a good reason for why a bad thing happened is OK, and it can go a long way in helping them process it."

Here are a few great resources I also found for parents looking for tips on how to have this difficult conversation with your kids: 

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