How do we explain tragedy to kids?

HONG KONG - It took me a while to decide whether to use the title above or not. With a heading like that, you have probably come here looking for convincing advice from a certified subject matter expert.

Unfortunately, I neither have the “right” answer nor am I a person of authority on this subject. I don’t have a Ph.D. in Child Psychology, and I don’t have any practical parenting experience in dealing with kids older than 5, either.

But after the tragedies that occurred over the past week (i.e. the bombings at the Boston Marathon and in the Middle East), I ask the question from the perspective of a parent who isn’t really sure how to respond to all of this. I therefore thought that it would be a good idea to think this through a bit and, in whatever form, make some much needed sense out of the pointless suffering.

This is what I could come up with, which you are more than welcome to add to or refute.

There was a time — before the dawn of the internet and social media — when children could somewhat be shielded from traumatic news such as these. Whether that is the right thing to do in the first place is debatable, but the fact remains that doing so is a near impossibility today. Not only because information is so readily accessible, but because the quality of information out there can be highly sensationalized, unverified and, at times, downright fictitious and harmful.

As parents, it is very easy to believe that we can serve as the best firewalls to block out any information we do not want our kids to see. Although we do need to exercise some level of discipline regarding data access, it is unreasonable to assume that we can filter everything our kids are exposed to. 

More than censorship, we need to provide our kids with guidance — guidance on how to react to the information they see and hear, instruction on how to respond to news that can be disturbing and unsettling. Not only does this train our children to think for themselves, it also relieves us of some unnecessary weight off our own shoulders.

At some point — and again with proper guidance — we will need to trust that we provide enough coaching to our kids so they can respond appropriately to tragic events such as what happened in Boston and Iraq.

In such an open but sensibly regulated environment, we should also probably serve as proper models to our kids. It has been proven time and again that the way we act will more than likely be how our kids react as well. We should restrain excessive and inappropriate emotions (e.g. “All terrorists should be killed!”) and approach crises such as these rationally and with an appropriate level of emotion.

Easier said than done, you may say (and rightfully so). But no matter how tough it is to respond in a mature fashion, we should strive for it because responsible behavior will more likely stem from rational behavior, not the irrational.

Finally, we should make ourselves available to our children to talk about what is happening. Depending at what age and level of development they are at, they will most likely have questions of varying degrees of difficulty, ranging from the factual (“What happened in Iraq? What is a car bomb?”) to the philosophical (“Why did an 8-year-old boy have to die in Boston? What would motivate someone to perform such an evil act?”).

When confronted with such questions, I believe we should be conscious not to brush them aside as simple or irrelevant. Doing so might discourage your kids from coming to you in the future and encourage them to seek out their answers from other sources whose credibility we cannot validate. Instead, we should answer carefully and truthfully, even if we have to admit, “I don’t know.” 

We need to be mindful of any misconceptions that our kids may have and correct them immediately lest conclusions be formed based on wrong information. This presumes, of course, that we take the time to stay up-to-date and discerning about the truth ourselves. If not, then at the very least, use this opportunity to seek out the answers together.

By far, doing any or all of these will not guarantee complete clarity. There are many whys about senseless destruction that even adults would be hard pressed to decipher. But going through such a process with our kids is already in itself a template of sorts that they can use when confronted with similar situations in the future. 

It won’t matter if they are trying to make sense of the Boston Marathon bombing, the Sandy Hook shooting, violence related to the national elections, or Kristel Tejada’s suicide. Thinking through such events critically will be a skill that will serve them in good stead later in life.

Isn’t this what we, as parents, are supposed to be doing for our children anyway: preparing them to be self-sufficient? Using such events to educate our kids may sound a little self-serving, but if some good can be harvested from misfortune, that can’t be a bad thing, can it?

One final thought: after processing the events together with your children, I suppose that it’s best to end with a sense of hope; that the world, for all its evil and corruption, is still filled with so much good.

Much has already been said of the first responders and how the good people of Boston immediately banded together to reach out to those in need. The bombing did not end in tragedy, but in communion. It did not end in despair, but in hope. It did not end in pain and death, but in healing, compassion, and life.

A friend of mine posted online the following quotation from Mahatma Gandhi, which I believe encapsulates the hope that we should continue to shower our children with:

“Remember that all through history, there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they seem invincible. But in the end, they always fall. Always.” -


Michael G. Yu

Michael G.


There is the helicopter parent, the negligent parent, and then there’s Michael Gohu Yu. A doting father one minute who transforms into Homer Simpson the next, his writing on parenting reflects themes ranging from the humorous to the heartwarming. Whichever the case, though, he always aims to entertain parents of all ages.