Adults sometimes struggle to talk with children about a traumatic event in the news, whether it’s a national disaster resulting in death or a terrible act of violence. Tragic events may get amplified with social media coverage, television commentary, and public conversation like a death caused by police, violent gun related crimes in public spaces, or a tragic school shooting.
These events may happen in a neighboring community or a place that’s not close to home. A child watching and listening to others talk about a high-profile, violent event can result in confusion, fear, anxiety, and emotional insecurity.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages anyone who works closely with children to present information in a way that their child can understand, adjust to and cope with. This may require filtering details about the graphic nature of the event, depending on the age, with more explanatory discussion about the causes and results. It’s important to remind the child that they are around capable, caring adults who are ensuring their safety at home and at school.
Children Sense That Parents are Concerned
According to Jamie Howard, PhD, director of Trauma and Resilience Service at the Child Mind Institute, “parents tend to worry about school shootings more than their children do. Even though they’re the ones going into school every day, I just don’t hear a lot of kids worrying about it. When children are younger they’re more egocentric. As they get to become teenagers this changes. This developmental selfishness is a quality that often protects younger children from the kind of anxiety that the adults around them are experiencing.
This is good news for parents who worry about their children feeling afraid. But kids are very good at picking up on the fears of their parents, and if they sense that Mom or Dad is afraid, they will take notice.”
Help Your Child navigate the Distress of a Traumatic Event
Talk to Your Child
The most important thing you can do to help a child deal with anxiety is to find the time and space to let them know you’re listening to their feelings and concerns.
- Find a moment where you can have focused one-on-one conversation, such as in the car, at the dinner table. Try not to talk about troubling events at bedtime which should be the time to relax and feel comforted.
- Ask your child whether they have heard of the event and to describe any details.
- Be open to their thoughts and do not interrupt them.
- Ask them to share their feelings about the event without judgment.
- Gently correct any misinformation or misassumptions, giving them age appropriate details.
- Share your own thoughts or feelings without any argument. Let them know it’s ok to have different points of view.
- It’s ok to admit that you don’t know all the reasons for a tragedy or have all the solutions.
- Be cautious not to scapegoat broad segments of the population for a person’s violent act.
- Ask them what types of concerns they may have for their own safety.
- Reinforce what you are doing as a family to ensure your safety.
- Let them know any policies and protocols at school that you are aware of put in place to increase their safety.
- Turn off the news repeating the same tragic information over and over.
- Don’t feel pressure to watch memorial services or attend events where the issue is predominant.
Keep Your Home a Place of Solace and Security.
First and foremost, a child’s home should be their source of solace and lack of worry. Ensure your child that their home is secure and they should always feel safe there.
- Keep the home free of loud arguments and threats of violence.
- Reduce the amount of TV coverage of daily news and violent events, as well as violent programming.
- Teach your kids to lock the doors upon entering and especially when they are home alone.
- Make sure they feel free to contact you regularly to ensure everyone is well. This can give them a sense of wellbeing when you are not around.
- Teach and practice safety in answering the front door, encouraging them not to respond if an adult is not at home.
- Make sure children know to dial 911 in case of any emergency.
- Keep all contact numbers for family, trusted neighbors, and friends in an accessible spot and encourage kids to call at any time they feel uncomfortable.
Signs a Child May Not Be Coping Well With Trauma
Some children may continue feeling anxiety or concerns as a result of exposure to news or conversations around a tragedy. They may have trouble adjusting to their normal routines. There are signs to look for that may indicate a need for more counseling time.
- They may start acting detached or unconcerned about others.
- Exhibiting joy and laughter becomes less common.
- There may be signs of less concentration or not being able to make decisions.
- Some have disturbing dreams and trouble sleeping.
- School work could suffer from short attention spans.
- Behavioral changes may include irritability, social regression, clinging to parents, or substance abuse in older children.
- Headaches or stomach aches are common in children with anxiety.
- Changes in eating patterns can occur.
Take Care of Yourself
It can be traumatizing to imagine losing a child or watching other parents deal with their intense grief. There is fear and worry about keeping your child safe. Intense fear can lead to traumatic stress disorder and anxiety can take over everyday activities like dropping them off at school or going to a large shopping mall.
Talk to other adults about your feelings. Seek professional help from your primary care provider or behavioral health specialist if you feel overwhelmed by concerns.
Delay making major decisions like moving away from a community, changing jobs, or taking kids completely out of school that may be spurred on by traumatic events around you,. Discuss these decisions with your trusted loved ones.
How to Move Forward
Continue talking with your child, giving them every opportunity to express themselves and their feelings around the trauma. If you need professional support, talk to a school counselor or your primary care physician. Get a referral to a pediatric behavioral health clinician. Consider family counseling to support one another and help everyone learn how to strengthen emotional connections.
Unfortunately, there will be natural disasters, national emergencies, and tragic events in our future. It’s up to each of us as parents, teachers, adults, and healthcare providers to support resilience in children who can navigate these traumatic events in a healthy way.
RESOURCES FOR PARENTS