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Talking with Children about Trauma

Traumatic events may be confusing, sad and scary for children. They do not understand or process traumatic events in the same way adults do. It is important to remember that children look to the adults in their lives for how to respond to trauma. Pay attention to your own feelings and then, when talking with children, do so from a place of calm.

Suggestions for talking to kids about traumatic events:

  1. Be the one to start the conversation. This models that you are someone they can come to with questions and concerns and shows them that you are open to talking with them.  Be honest about what happened without going into great detail. Remind them that it is your job to keep them safe and you are going to do that.  It is okay to let them know that your feelings about this (which gives them permission to have feelings too) but do so from a calm place. 
  2. Find out what they already know.  Do this by asking open ended questions like “What have you heard so far about what happened?” Listen carefully for misinformation, or underlying worries. Gently correct misinformation with clear and simple language. 
  3. Encourage them to ask you questions. Be the source of information for them.  Children will seek out information so it is important to get ahead of this and let them know that you will provide them with accurate information and answer their questions. When doing this, think carefully about the message you are providing them and allow them to be part of the solution.  For example, when explaining why you may be sheltering in place, let them know that we need to stay off the roads in order to help police find the person who did this.  This lets them know that they are doing their part in helping.  When a trauma like this happens, children (and adults) may feel out of control.  This helps children feel like they have some control over the situation and they are helping.
  4. Most importantly, limit media exposure.  Watching images and hearing stories can be very scary for children (and can increase anxiety in adults as well).  Limit what children are watching, reading, or hearing.  Each time a child hears the story again or watches an image, they get an additional dose of stress.  If your child does watch something, take a moment after to connect with them and ask them what they heard and how they are feeling.  This reminds them that you are a source of support and honesty.  Keep reminding them that it is your job to keep them safe and that you are doing that. Also pay attention to how much you are talking about the event.  They may hear you and feel increased worry.
  5. Stick to your routines.  Routines are safe and reliable for children.  Sticking to their routine will be a message of safety for them.
  6. Try to do something fun with them. Show them that life can still go on in your household and that it is okay to feel joy even in the midst of sorrow.

How to Talk With Kids About Tragedies & Other Traumatic News Events

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages parents, teachers, child care providers, and others who work closely with children to filter information about the event and present it in a way that their child can understand, adjust to and handle in a healthy way.

Additional Resources

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has developed resources to help children, families and communities navigate what they are seeing and hearing in the media, acknowledge their feelings, and find ways to cope together. These resources include:

Psychological First Aid
The NCTSN also has resources for responders on Psychological First Aid (PFA; En Español). PFA is an early intervention to support children, adolescents, adults, and families impacted by these types of events. PFA Mobile and the PFA Wallet Card (En Español) provide a quick reminder of the core actions. The PFA online training (En Español) course is also available on the NCTSN Learning Center. PFA Handouts include:

From the National Mass Violence and Victimization Resource Center & Partners

From the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University

Disaster Helpline
SAMHSA has a Disaster Distress Helpline – call or text 1-800-985-5990 (for Spanish, press “2”) to be connected to a trained counselor 24/7/365.