Talking with children about violence and traumatic events

Breaking the news

  • It’s much better for the child if you’re the one who tells [them]. You don’t want her to hear from some other child, a television news report, or the headlines on the front page of the New York Post. You want to be able to convey the facts, however painful, and set the emotional tone.” (Child Mind Institute)
  • Validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.” (National Association of School Psychologists)
  • Do not minimize a child’s concerns. Let [them] know that serious acts of violence are not as common or likely as they may seem, despite so much media attention.” (Mental Health America)

Let children talk about their feelings

  • Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. Be patient; children and youth do not always talk about their feelings readily. … Young children may need concrete activities (such as drawing, looking at picture books, or imaginative play) to help them identify and express their feelings.” (NASP)
  • When talking with younger children, remember to talk on their level. For example, they may not understand the term “violence” but can talk to you about being afraid of a classmate who is mean to them or about something they heard on TV (or saw online).” (MHA)
  • Give [them] ample opportunity to ask questions. You want to be prepared to answer (but not prompt) questions about upsetting details. Your goal is to avoid encouraging frightening fantasies.” (CMI)

Use developmentally appropriate explanations

  • Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them.” (NASP)
  • Don’t volunteer too much information, as this may be overwhelming. Instead, try to answer your child’s questions. Do your best to answer honestly and clearly. It’s okay if you can’t answer everything; being available to your child is what matters.” (Child Mind Institute)
  • Turn off the TV and radio news at the top of the hour and half hour. Read the newspaper out of range of young eyes that can be frightened by the pictures. … Preschool kids don't need to see or hear about something that will only scare them silly, especially because they can easily confuse facts with fantasies or fears.” (Common Sense Media)

Provide reassurance about safety

  • Review safety procedures. This should include procedures and safeguards at school and at home.” (NASP)
  • Recognize behavior that may indicate your child is concerned about their safety. Younger children may react to violence by not wanting to attend school or go out in public. Behavior such as bed-wetting, thumb sucking, baby talk, or a fear of sleeping alone may intensify in some younger children, or reappear in children who had previously outgrown them.” (MHA)
  • Assure [them] that this kind of tragedy is investigated carefully, to identify causes and help prevent it from happening again. It’s confidence-building for kids to know that we learn from negative experiences.” (CMI)

Maintain your child’s routine

  • Keeping to a regular schedule can be reassuring and promote physical health. Ensure that children get plenty of sleep, regular meals, and exercise. Encourage them to keep up with their schoolwork and extracurricular activities but don’t push them if they seem overwhelmed.” (NASP)
  • Be together. Though it's important to listen and not belittle their fears, distraction and physical comfort can go a long way.” (Common Sense Media)
  • If your child is upset, just spending time with [them] may make [them] feel safer. Children find great comfort in routines, and doing ordinary things together as a family may be the most effective form of healing.” (CMI)