Nathan O'Brien case: Tips for talking to children about the O'Brien case

The suspected killings of Nathan O'Brien and his grandparents have touched Albertans and Canadians across the country but explaining the tragedy to a questioning child can be a difficult task for parents.

Calgary Distress Centre recommends answering if your child asks a question about the case

Jennifer Kohut and her son Axton, three, place flowers and a toy at an impromptu memorial for Nathan O'Brien and his grandparents at the Liknes home in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

The suspected killings of Nathan O'Brien and his grandparents have touched Canadians across the country but explaining the tragedy to a questioning child can be a difficult task for parents.

CBC News reached out to the Calgary Distress Centre for tips on how parents can respond if their child asks about the case, and what some of the challenges of that conversation would be for different children.

Joan Roy is executive director of the centre and, along with crisis counsellor Jasmine Dixon and basic needs co-ordinator Lynda Gardiner, has compiled some responses to situations you might face with your child.

Q: You're driving in the car when your child in the back seat asks about the suspected killings. Should you address your child's question or try to change the subject?

Generally, answering your child's question is a good idea because you can show them that you're not afraid to discuss something that might be scary. By choosing not to openly discuss the deaths, you reinforce the idea that it's something that shouldn't be talked about. The potential problem is then that a child might try to have their questions answered elsewhere and you might not know what kind of information your child is exposed to.

It's also important to acknowledge your own reaction to these deaths. It's normal to have emotional responses to tragedies and it's vital to care for yourself. If driving and talking about this event (or other difficult topics) is overwhelming, let your child know that you need to focus on driving and you will answer their questions later. It is especially important to follow through on this promise with a specific time and place that you'll have the discussion. You can use this time to consider how you might answer your child's questions, based on their developmental age and stage.

Q: If you answer the question, how much information should you share with you child?

Answer your child's question directly without providing more information that what they've asked for. Providing more information might confuse then or generate more fear and anxiety, if that is what they are already feeling. Children are very perceptive — they'll notice your body language and tone of voice. If you are letting them know through your body language that this situation is scary and emotional, they may interpret that as a signal that they should be scared as well. As best you can, approach the conversation with a relaxed body and calm tone of voice. Reassure your child that they are safe.

Q: How is the conversation different with preschoolers as opposed to children in kindergarten and elementary school?

Every child is different — even children who are the same age are at different developmental levels, have different temperaments and have different levels of sensitivity. As a parent, you know your child and how best to support them as individuals. Generally, children in their preschool years are working towards understanding the permanency of death. Some children may bring up the subject over and over again, which can be distressing to a parent although this behaviour is normal. A preschool child may not have the vocabulary to express what kind of feeling they're having and it might be helpful for the parent to offer some feeling words. 

It can be helpful for the parent to acknowledge to the child that having big feelings in response to a situation like this is normal. Reassure them that you will help as much as you can. Be aware that some children may be less inclined to talk, though may start behaving in ways that are outside of their 'normal.' For example, a child who has been impacted by an event may start to regress to behaviours they have outgrown. Be aware that children learn and grow through play and a child may return to playing shortly after having a conversation about these events.

Children in kindergarten and early elementary school may be more likely to find themselves a part of a discussion or may hear a discussion about the events. Again, answer any questions that may arise. Within these years, children are moving towards having a more concrete understanding of death. Children in these years may struggle with big feelings and it is helpful to provide time and space to safely discuss their experiences. One strategy that will likely reassure your child is to maintain structure and consistency in their schedules.

Q: How do you explain why someone would kill a five-year-old?

Depending on the developmental stage of your child, they might be asking about what it means to be dead or what murder is. These kinds of questions can be hard to hear from your child, especially if they are quite young, but they are normal. You can explain that some people have minds that allow them to kill other people, through this is very rare. Explain that this is not something that happens very often and that your child is safe. The conversation can be focused on the specific things that you can do as a family to keep everyone safe.

Q: What is your child expresses fears about sleepovers with grandparents?

Take the time to listen and learn about what your child fears. Is there a plan that you can make together that would help them feel more safe? Perhaps staying a little longer when dropping your child off or phoning them while they are with their grandparents might help ease the transition.

Q: What is your child doesn't ask about the case but seems to be bothered by something? How do you start the conversation?

Gently let your child know that you're wondering if something is bothering them. Let them know that if they would like to talk, they can. As challenging as it can be to watch your child suffer and as much as you'd like to take their pain away, remind them that talking is an option if they would like to. As best you can, try to bring up your worries with your child at a time with minimal distractions or no scheduled activities.

Q: Is it really possible these days to shield your child from current events?

Unfortunately, as much as we would like to prevent our children from being exposed to such saddening events, it is becoming more and more challenging to do so. While turning off the news is certainly a possibility within your home, it's much more difficult to limit a child's exposure to news outside of the home and other people who may have been talking about an event. While the idea of openly discussing these deaths may make parents very uncomfortable, it is an opportunity to reassure the young people in our lives that they are safe and cared for.

For further help, please visit the Calgary Distress Centre website.