How to Talk to Your Special Needs Child about Catastrophic Events

Special needs mom, Clinical and School Psychologist
08/30/18  3:31 PM PST
special needs child

How to Talk to Your Special Needs Child about Catastrophic Events

Often, when our children come to us with questions, we feel the need to tell them everything we know. But, what we sometimes don’t realize is that when our children ask us a question, they often just want the answer for that one question. Nothing more.

Depending on your child’s age and disability, you may also have to make tough decisions about sharing information on current events, such as natural disasters or school shootings. Sadly, that is the world we live in, and with social media and access to the internet, our children are more informed today than we ever were when we were their age.

In that sense, our world is a scarier world for our children today. When I was younger, what I knew, I heard in school or was told by my parents. I had no other way of knowing what was going on, unless I turned on the news, and I wasn’t really that interested. Besides, we had an old school cable box, with a wire, and I had to manually turn the knobs to find it… nope, wasn’t happening!

What Should I Tell My Special Needs Child when there is a Natural Disaster or School Shooting?

When your child approaches you, first, get a sense of why the interest in the topic now. For example, if they ask you, “Mommy, what happened in (insert topic of interest here)?” respond with, “What did you hear about that? Where did you hear about it?” First, try to gain an understanding of where this information came from and then ask your child to tell you what he knows about it.

Then ask, “Well, what do you want to know?” Proceed to answer the question that is asked of you using 1-2 sentences. Then, stop. Don’t expand or give history or too many details. This will overwhelm your child.

My daughter, who is now 9 and has learning disabilities, asked me when she was 7: “Mommy, what is 9-11?”

Me: “Where did you hear about that?”

My daughter: “We talked about it in Social Studies.”

Me: “What did your teacher say?”

My daughter: “That it was about planes that crashed into big buildings.”

Me: “What do you want to know about it?”

My daughter: “Did it really happen?”

Me: “Yes, it did.”

My daughter: “Did you see it?”

Me: “No, I was at work, but I saw it on TV when I got home.”

My daughter: “Were you scared?”

Me: “Yes, I was scared for the people involved.”

My daughter: “Did you know anybody in the buildings?”

Me: “No.”

My daughter: “Can I have mac and cheese for dinner?”

Had I not gained the background information from her, I would have started at the beginning and likely given her more information than she could have comprehended. Knowing my daughter, she is easily frightened and holds on to mental images that then creep up at night, before bed, and keep her awake.

She would have likely lingered on the details for months to come.  She would have gotten stuck on planes and planes crashing. God forbid we would have needed to travel somewhere by plane; she would have never stepped foot on one. By asking her questions about what she wanted to know, I gave her exactly what she wanted, which was a lot simpler than what I would have anticipated.

Dr. Liz Matheis


Dr. Liz Matheis is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and certified School Psychologist who specializes in working with children with ADHD, Anxiety, Autism, Learning Disabilities, and behavioral struggles. She is also mom to three children, one with special needs. Her practice, Psychological and Education Consulting, is located in Livingston, New Jersey.



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