Skip to main content

How to help kids deal with tragic news

Late Tuesday night a 2-year-old boy was dragged into a lagoon by an alligator near a resort at Walt Disney World, and this afternoon, officials announced the deceased child's body had been recovered.

The incident became a trending topic on social media, with many parents horrified by the news.

Emily Durham, supervisor of Child Life Services at GHS Children’s Hospital, said it’s natural for an incident like the one at Walt Disney World to also affect young children because the Orlando theme parks are a popular family destination. She said there are things parents can do to make tragic news such as mass shootings and animal attacks easier for small children to handle.

“Use words that are clear and that convey the information in a fashion your child will understand,” she said. “You don’t want to give them more information than they need.”

Child Life Services helps children handle anxiety and stress following traumatic incidents, and its staff follows the resources of the National Traumatic Child Stress Network, Durham said. That organization has free handouts and information available for parents at

Durham said if children ask questions about the incident, answer them.

“Allow them to ask questions and express feelings, and then reassure them of their own safety,” she said.

She said it’s a natural response for parents and children alike to experience fear at the idea of visiting Walt Disney World after an incident like the gator attack, but it’s important to remember that Disney World has been open 45 years and this is the first time such an incident has occurred there.

“Some of the stuff I’ve seen that Disney has put out reinforces the fact that you should follow the rules while you’re there and reassures everyone that Disney is doing everything they can to keep their patrons safe,” she said.

She said some children will be really affected by tragic news while others shrug it off and move on.

“It could go either way,” she said. “If they’re exposed to a lot of media coverage about it, if they watch it over and over again on the TV, they may be more affected by it than a child who hears about it and has never been to Disney and has no one who lives in that area. They don’t have a framework to put it into.”

Children who have been to Disney World might express concerns about returning, she said. Those children simply need reassurance.

“If they’re given the opportunity to ask questions and be reassured that everything is being done to keep them safe, they should be OK,” she said.

Limiting the amount of exposure to TV news or social media discussions about the topic are key to alleviating children’s fears about tragic incidents, Durham added.

“Especially with young children, because young children aren’t able to figure out this is a recording,” she said. “They see it happening over and over and over again every time the media shows the same pictures.”

Older children like to scare each with exaggerated stories such as alligator attacks, so if parents overhear their children discussing it, they should interrupt and clarify the information.

“I would encourage the parents to ask the children, ‘What are you talking about?’ and ‘What have you heard?’” she said. “Sometimes kids overhear snippets and children will put together stories that are far worse than what actually happened, or the pieces will get exaggerated. When parents step in and clarify misconceptions, it provides reassurance.”

It's a natural response for people to be quick to point blame, and Durham said she’s not surprised so many people are rushing to blame the parents in the gator attack incident.

“We always look for who’s to blame because that’s how we think,” she said. “The truth is, terrible things happen. You can do everything right, and terrible things still happen. Talk with your kids and tell them that sometimes there isn’t a reason why something bad happens, but Mom and Dad are your family. These people in the community, such as first responders and police, are always doing everything they can to keep you as safe as possible. Again, reassurance is so important with children.”

How to Talk with Your Kids About Tragic Events

Emily Durham, supervisor of Child Life Services at GHS Children’s Hospital, recommends parents follow this advice:

  • Speak clearly about the topic and clarify any misconceptions they’ve heard.
  • Only give your children as much information as they need to process what happened.
  • Allow your kids to ask questions and express their feelings.
  • Limit their exposure to media coverage about the event.
  • Reassure them they’re safe.