How to Talk with Children About Tragic Events

Traumatic events, such as the recent shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., can be a challenging topic for parents to discuss with their children. Not only is it an emotional topic, but there are questions that cannot be answered. For many adults, the natural instinct is to protect their child from tragic events so they avoid talking about what happened.

Melissa Stalets, a licensed clinical professional counselor and director of the Children’s MOSAIC Project, a program of The Children’s Center at Mental Health Centers of Central Illinois, advises that parents talk to their children, answer questions and provide reassurance when tragedy strikes — especially when it involves children and schools, a place many consider a safe haven.

Tips for Talking to Children about Tragic Events

The approach a parent takes for the conversation should depend on their child’s age and developmental level. Very young children, such as those 6 and younger, should not be introduced to this tragedy. But shielding them entirely may prove impossible. 

“If a young child hears about the event, parents should talk to them in very simple and general terms such as ‘Something bad happened far away and people are sad about it,’ or ‘Lots of people are helping those who are sad. We are safe and I will take care of you,’” Stalets said.

For older children and teenagers, it is important for them to know they can turn to their parents for information and reassurance. Without the ability to discuss their concerns with an adult, children can feel vulnerable and anxious.  Detailed explanations are not necessary, but children must know that the adults in their life are able to cope and will help and protect them.

  • Stalets provides these tips for the discussion:
  • Ask your child what he knows. A good starting point is to listen carefully to your child’s response and validate any emotions expressed.
  • Ask if he has any questions. Answer questions simply and honestly, but don’t provide more information than is asked for.
  • Let your child be the guide. Let him express any feelings he may be having and be careful to not minimize or discount those feelings. Your child may give cues that he is ready to end the conversation, and that is OK. Do not force your child to talk, but let him know he can talk to you at any time. It is typical for children to take in small pieces of information and then come back with more questions. It’s also typical for children to ask the same question multiple times.

Possible Changes in Behavior

It is common for children to have changes in behavior after a traumatic event. These can include difficulty falling asleep, appetite changes and separation anxiety.

“If a child exhibits more intense changes in behavior or if those changes persist for two weeks or more, parents should consider seeking the assistance of a mental health professional who can help the child manage strong emotions and learn coping strategies,” Stalets said.

For some children, the shooting in Connecticut might make them fearful about going to their own school. Stalets urges parents to reassure their child that school is a safe place.

“Younger children will benefit from simple reminders about the safety precautions that are in place at school,” she said. “Older children and teenagers can be reminded that tragic events such as what happened in Newtown are exceedingly rare.”

Exposure to TV, Radio and Internet after a Tragedy

After a traumatic event like a school shooting, it is important for parents to limit the amount of media coverage to which their children are exposed. Media coverage can be confusing and overwhelming to young children, and parents should refrain from allowing them to watch the television coverage or listen to reports on the radio. It also may be necessary to monitor internet usage.

“The intent is not to keep the tragedy a secret, but to protect vulnerable children from seeing or hearing more than they are developmentally capable of processing,” Stalets said.

As for teenagers, they may seek out information about the tragedy in an attempt to understand how and why it happened. For many people, seeking information is a typical and healthy coping strategy. Parents should talk with their teen about what he is reading and hearing.

“If your teenager seems to be overwhelmed by the information and you notice changes in behavior or a disruption in their daily activities, you need to intervene,” Stalets said.

Where to Seek Help

Staff at The Children’s Center are available to help children and parents after a traumatic event. Call 757-7700 for more information or visit Walk-in assessments for children and adolescents are available.

Additional information about how to help children after a shooting is available on the American Psychological Association’s website.