In the wake of last week's horrific events in Christchurch, the whole country has been talking. Media coverage has been constant and people everywhere have been having conversations expressing shock and outrage at what happened.

It's unrealistic to think children won't be absorbing the energy around them like sponges, so knowing how to talk about traumatic events in a way that helps them learn without traumatising them is vitally important.

First and foremost, turn off media. It's okay to be informed, but an event of this magnitude is going to have media saturation. For the sake of your family's mental wellbeing and to keep a sense of positivity, it's a good idea to limit exposure.

Secondly, it's important to be honest with kids, but at a level of detail that is appropriate for their age. It might be tempting to hide things from them, but if they are able to gather from others around them that something is going, there will be an element of trust in you as a parent that is lost and they will feel scared.


One of the most important things to let children know is that whatever they are feeling, it is okay. In an article published by The Parenting Place, psychologist Karen Young says that saying things to children like, "don't worry," or, "don't be silly – nothing like that will happen here," though said with the best of intentions, can actually make kids worry more.

"It might also cause them to feel shame, which will only make them shut down," she writes.

Young says putting things into context is particularly helpful.

"If they're feeling scared, it will be because they're noticing the similarities between themselves and the people who have been directly hurt – ages, families, or the area they live in," she says.

"Explaining the differences between their circumstances and the circumstances around the event will help to ease their fear."

She recommends asking a child what it is they are directly worried about, and making sure you are available for them.

"Let them see your compassion, empathy and resilience," Young says.

"They need to have faith in the world and the people in it. Whenever there is trauma in the world, there are also remarkable demonstrations of solidarity and kindness, and love and support for strangers. Let them hear these stories."


An age guide:

Up to four years:

Small children have trouble separating facts from fantasy, Young says, so it might be best to shield them from traumatic events as much as you can.

"If they have questions, it's important to answer them, but only in as much detail as you need to reassure them and help them feel safe."

5-11 years:

Young says letting kids lead the conversation here works.

"If they're talking, that's important. They want you to help them feel safe. On the surface they'll be asking what happened, but the driving force will be understanding what it means for them.

How does it affect them? Could it happen to them? What if it happens to someone they love? How do you know it won't happen again?" she says.

Children this age will be looking for comfort and your willingness to talk to them will give them this.

"Give them the details they ask for, but you don't need to give them more than that. Don't lie to them or avoid their direct questions. They'll be able to tell when you're not being upfront and this will only make it more difficult to take comfort from your answers."

12-14 years:

Young acknowledges that because a lot of their lives happen when we aren't there – through social media, at school, at friends' houses – it's difficult to know exactly how much kids of this age understand about what's happening or what they're worried about.

"Listen, and they will usually show you. The clues will be in their questions or their misunderstandings, or the incidental things they say along the way. The most important thing is letting them know that you're there for them if they need to talk or ask questions," she says.

"What's important is that you clear up any misunderstandings or misconceptions, and give them a balanced view of what has happened."

Over 14 years:

They'll most likely be hearing a lot of information through friends and social media, so it's important to make sure the information they have is accurate, Young says. Ask them if they've heard about what happened and what they know about it.

"By this age, they'll be starting to separate from you and turning to their peers to meet their needs. Don't worry at all if they don't want to talk about things. When they need comfort or conversation, it's very normal for them to turn to friends.

"They might also seem even more attached to their phone. People feel safest in groups, and at this age, their friendship groups are everything – it's just how they find stability and comfort, which they might need if the world seems crazy for a while."

She recommends avoiding saying things you don't believe or giving them empty platitudes.

"They're too smart and it will cheapen everything else you say," she says. "Let them know that you wish you had the answers and that you wish you could say nothing like this will happen again, but you can't say that – nobody can. Let them know that these things are rare and remind them how their situation is different."

For all children, empowering them by letting them know that their voice, their thoughts, and the way they are in the world all matter to you and others, is very effective, Young says.

"They need to know that it's because of them, and people like them, that the spirit of love, kindness and compassion will always be stronger than anything that tries to weaken it."