Talking to Children About Traumatic Events: 7 Ways Parents Can Help

Talking to Children About Traumatic Events: 7 Ways Parents Can Help

Updated: Dec 7, 2018

Article Credit: The Center for Parenting Education


Trauma Causes Stress

Natural disasters, man-made crises such as car or plane accidents, or violent episodes like shootings or bombings happen all too often these days. Traumatic events can have profound effects not only on those who have been directly involved and influenced, but also on people close to those people and to witnesses. 



Effects of 24/7 Media Coverage

The extensive media coverage that has become so prevalent in our world means that the circle of witnesses has expanded to include even those who were not present at the event.  The 24-hour news coverage results in graphic and immediate images of major national or world calamities being broadcast into our homes.

It is becoming more and more difficult to prevent children from experiencing such disasters indirectly and vicariously through the media.

Anxiety in Children

Large-scale tragedies can be extremely disturbing to children, who thrive on predictability and security.  When exposed to these catastrophic events, whether personally or through the media, children often display fears and anxieties that may seem extreme to adults.  Usually, these reactions are normal.

However, without proper assurance, the impact of events like these can remain with children for a long time, even throughout their lives.

The following information can help you to understand and ease your child’s fears and concerns. This way they can become resilient enough to weather the most traumatic disaster, and grow even stronger from the experience.

7 Ways Parents Can Parents Help




1. Love and Nurture Your Children

  • Express your love. Tell your children you love them more often than you usually do, verbally and physically. Give plenty of hugs, even if your child doesn’t show outward signs of distress. Hugs, sitting close to read together, and giving back rubs can help restore a child’s sense of safety and security.

  • Be available. Be there for your children as much as possible when they need to talk about the disaster. You may want to save phone calls, texts, emails and social media activities for after your child’s bedtime so that you can be available to them and so they don’t get scared by your strong reactions to the event.

  • Give them opportunities to express their thoughts and feelings. Remember that of all the things children/people need in times of crisis, the most important is the chance to talk about their reactions and experiences.

  • Focus on your children’s feelings and thoughts. When thinking about how to talk to them, take your lead from them in terms of what they need and what they are thinking and feeling. Do this without judgment or suggestions.

  • Foster a sense of connection. Stay close if possible. If you must leave, prepare the child well, assure him he will be safe and you will be back.

  • Look for signs of anxiety. These can be in the form of physical symptoms, a change in behavior, a reluctance to go to school, acting out or withdrawing, or increased clinginess.



2. Reassure Your Children

  • Maintain normal routines as much as possible. They are reassuring during times of stress. Keeping an unbroken sense of security and routine is one of the most important things you can provide for your children, who find comfort and safety in the routines and structure of their everyday lives. Encourage your child to participate in normal activities and keep the family routine as much as possible.

  • Keep bedtime calm. Allow more time than usual for this transition, if needed.

  • Reassure your child that he, your family and community are safe. Let him know that you will protect him, and that events like this are rare. Tell him that there will always be someone there to protect and take care of him. Although we can’t give total reassurance, we can tell our children of our hopes that these kinds of tragedies will not happen again and that all the adults in their world are doing everything possible to keep them safe.

  • Give a young child a comforting toy or something of yours to keep. This can be a scarf, a photo, a note, etc. Your child may be afraid of separating from you; keeping a reminder of you close by may help.

  • Encourage discussion or the expression of feelings. Allow anxieties to surface. Let your child know it is normal to feel worried or upset. Supply words if your child has difficulty labeling how he feels.

  • Share your own reactions. This should be done in moderation and without overwhelming your children with your feelings. Let them know that you share some of their concerns.

  • Talk about safety measures that are in place. If appropriate to the situation and to the child, let your child know about your family’s and the children’s school have in place to keep your child safe.



3. Teach Your Children

  • Interpret the Event

  1. It is up to parents to interpret what has happened. Provide facts, in line with your child’s age and level of understanding. Keep your answers to your children’s questions simple and age-appropriate.

  2. Limit your child’s and your own exposure to media images of the crisis.

  3. Keep your children talking about what they are hearing and seeing. As much as you can,encourage your child to talk about what they think happened and how they are feeling.

  4. Be patient when he asks the same questions many times over. Children often use repetition of information as a source of comfort and to make sense of what is happening. Try to be consistent with answers and information.

  5. Teach children that being violent or killing people is never acceptable. Make sure they know that people make mistakes and do harmful things, but violence or hurting another person is never an appropriate way to solve a problem or express one’s feelings and frustrations.

  6. Help children understand that they are good people. Let them know that you believe they would never commit such a destructive act, and that they are certainly not responsible for the disaster (as young children might think).

  7. Tell your children about the heroes. Point out to them the extraordinary things the police, firefighters, emergency rescue teams, everyday heroes did in the face of the tragedy, those who respond to the disaster and help get the situation under control afterwards.

  8. Explain how they are always there to help. Talk about ways the adult world was competent to take charge when the crisis occurred.

  9. Encourage your children to use these heroes as role models. Let them know that when they are adults they to will be able to help people and make a difference in the world.

  10. Explain the qualities that make someone a hero. Point out that anyone can be a hero by putting aside personal needs to reach out to help others in need.

  • Teach Coping Skills

  • If your child seems reluctant to talk, but you believe she is upset, you can do any of the following depending on what you think she would respond best to:

  • Older children can keep a journal. If they seem very upset, suggest that they record their reactions and feelings about what happened. They can then talk to you about what they wrote, if they want to.

  • Younger children can draw pictures. They can talk about what they drew or they can act out how they are feeling with puppets. You can read aloud from children’s books about difficult situations that the main characters have dealt with and survived.

  • Find ways to become involved in helping activities. For example, you and your children can provide aid to victims or do fundraising to lessen feelings of isolation, helplessness and powerlessness.

  • Talk to other adults about your feelings. Do not burden or overwhelm your children. When you get your needs met, then you can be available to care for your children’s needs.



4. Be a Good Role Model

Children are influenced by their parents’ reactions. Children carefully watch parents to see how serious events are, how worried they should be, how much danger there might be around them. Children often adopt the same feelings and behaviors as their parents.

Remain calm. Share your feelings to a limited degree so that you are focusing on your children’s needs and they do not become overwhelmed.

Children need your attention. Children who are very stressed may try to find ways to get parents to focus on them and away from the outside events that are taking parents’ attention away from them.



5. Involve your Family in Helping Activities

Bring a sense of control and hope. Doing something to help lessens feelings of isolation, helplessness and powerlessness.

Write letters to people who have helped abate the crisis.

Join the possible efforts of religious or community organizations to contribute to those directly affected by the crisis.



6. Limit your Child’s Exposure to Media Images

With the advent of 24 hours news coverage, it is possible to watch the same traumatic events over and over again, each time traumatizing the viewer anew.

Shield your child from the graphic details and pictures in the media.

Media viewing may exaggerate fears. Children may believe that each time they see an image of the event, it is really happening againand again. They also may misinterpret the images and the commentary due to their limited capacity to understand abstract principles and concepts.

Watch the news with your school-aged and older children. If they are interested in knowing more about the tragedy, view with them so you can talk about what you have seen and heard.



7. Encourage discussion or the expression of feelings

Children need someone they trust. They need someone who will listen to their questions, accept their feelings, and be there for them. Open and thoughtful communication with your child will comfort and reassure her.

Don’t worry about knowing exactly the right thing to say. There is no answer that will make everything okay for now. Silence from you won’t protect them from what is happening, but it will prevent them from understanding and coping with it.


Help Your Child Understand his Feelings

If you see signs of anxiety or believe that your child is reacting to a traumatic event, you can help him understand his feelings, decrease his anxiety, and decrease any symptomatic expression of the anxiety.

Take your lead from your children. Consider what they need and what they are thinking and feeling.

Ask your child what she thinks happened. If she has any misconceptions, you can help to clarify the reality. If she knows upsetting details that are true, don’t deny them. Instead, listen carefully and let her talk about her fears:

“Tell me more about that.” “Are there other things that are bothering you right now?” “What have you heard about . . . .?” “What do you think happened?”

Allow Anxieties to Surface

Do not minimizing your child’s fears and concerns. The anxiety and any symptoms expressing it is a way for him to tell you that he feels sad, scared, helpless, etc.

It is okay if your children get upset. When they talk about scary or disturbing things, you can then reassure them and help them to feel safe and secure.  

Use physical contact, embracing, hugging, talking to him, and accept regressive behaviors. This behavior will subside when he feels safe again.

Help your child talk about the crisis. Let her know it is normal to feel worried or upset. Listen carefully to understand what she is really trying to say. Help her use words to describe her feelings, like “angry,” “sad,” “scared, etc. Putting their thoughts and experiences into words give children a sense of control.


If your Children Ask Questions about Safety

Provide reassurance Often they want to know that their immediate world of family and friends are safe now.  The amount of detail about security in the broader world that children will find useful will depend on their age.

Before responding, ask what your children’s ideas are. Then you can address the details of their concerns.


next: Understanding Children's Reaction to Trauma


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