New York City
March 2003

The 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle: How to Talk to Children about the Tragedy

What should I say to help children understand?

Some general guidelines: Keep in mind the child’s age, personality, general tendency to fear and worry, and level of interest. Monitor your own reactions as children learn the most from, and often worry the most about, those in their immediate environment. It is important for both children and adults to maintain their routines and talk about information and feelings as they evolve.

What do I say about what happened to the space shuttle?

It is important to know what children saw read, or heard and elicit information and questions from them. In discussing the incident it is best to be honest about what is known at a given time. It is fine to provide an answer that includes something like “what they know so far is that it looks like an accident. Some parts of the shuttle were damaged and caused problems. The people in charge of the mission are gathering all the evidence to discover exactly what happened, understand what went wrong, take steps to prevent it from happening again?”

What other information might help a child understand the event?

Parents and other adults can use the opportunity to talk about the planets, stars, and space travel in general. Children may be especially interested in a visit to a planetarium or reading books about space. It may be helpful to talk about the difference between what they see in outer space movies and real space exploration.

Should I tell them people died?

Children usually know more details than parents think and most likely they will hear a great deal about the men and women astronauts and their death. Parents are always the best source of information. Children will appreciate hearing the truth and it give parents the opportunity to clarify any misconceptions. Explain that it was a rare event and there have been many astronauts that have gone into space, even walked on the moon, and come back safely.

What if my child is afraid to fly?

It is important to point out the difference between space craft and astronauts and airplanes and regular passengers. This will help prevent or manage a child’s worry about general air travel. For example, a parent could describe how planes do not go as high or as fast and are made of different materials.

What if my child was involved in special experiments on board or was learning about the trip in school?

Explain that science is about trying new things to see what works. But things do not always succeed. Great inventions and progress always mean trying and trying and not giving up.

What if my child always wanted to be an astronaut when she grows up and has now changed her mind?

Express positive approval of the child’s aspirations, noting that there are many ways in which to work in the space program. Remind the child of our country’s tradition of exploration and accomplishments. Although some pioneers in every field have lost their lives, the number is few when compared to those who were successful. Note that as they get older, advances in technology will enable them to discover many ways to contribute to science and space.

Should I let my child watch TV?

We know that watching media coverage of a disaster, especially repeated viewing, can create stress in children even if they were not exposed to the tragedy directly. Young children may think it is happening again and again. Older children may become more fearful. Parents should not let very young children watch and for older children viewing should be limited and parents should watch with them.

What if adults become upset and worried?

The recent space shuttle disaster of 2003 may remind adults of the previous Challenger space shuttle disaster or other tragedies. They may find themselves having thoughts and feelings similar to those from the past. In addition, this comes at a time in history that many people are already feeling on edge and stressed by the events of September 11, 2001 and the threat of war.

Should I let my child go to a memorial or vigil?

Children, like adults, can benefit from sharing meaningful experiences. Public ceremonies and rituals provide an opportunity to express feelings and are a structured way to pay respects. It is often helpful for children to participate in rituals, to share their feelings of shock and sadness with others. Children should be told what to expect, given information about the event, and allowed to choose how to participate. Private or personally created remembrances may also be preferred. Reactions will vary: some children may be less interested in memorialization, some children and teens may wish to donate time, money or show support for the grieving families or a cause related to the space program in their own way.#

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