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Helping Children Cope With Traumatic Events

Carola is a mental health advocate and a freelance writer who focuses on mental health, mental illness, and cognitive conditions..

Violence is a big part of the news in this world – mass shootings, terrorism, and tragedy associated natural disasters. According to research by the University of Alabama at Birmingham, children may be unable to deal with these traumatic events without parental help. Children may sense their parents' anxiety, fear, and anger at these occurrences and want to know what is going on.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents, caregivers, teachers, and others working closely with children filter information about traumatic events. Related topics should be presented in a way that the child can accept, adjust to, and cope with. Parents and guardians need to help their children to not only understand what is happen in an age-appropriate way, but be to able to grasp concepts such as public safety, gun control, sexuality, and religious freedom. There are several strategies parents can use to tackle these difficult topics.

Conversation guidelines

Ask open-ended questions: These types of questions allow them to open up and drive the conversation. Some examples to open a discussion are: "Are you worried about something?" "Have you heard about (the event)?"

Ask children what they have already heard: Most children have heard something and may want to talk about the event. Ask them if they have any questions. Be straightforward and direct in your answers. Older children and teens might ask more questions and benefit from getting more information.

Listen: When your children want to talk about the events, listen to their questions and fears. Their fears are often worse than the reality of the situation. They may perceive the event as a threat to their own safety.

Talk about the issues: Parents should be open to discuss these topics, but also recognize that their children may still be processing the event. Your children are not always ready to talk about what is actually on their minds. Do not push if the child refuses to talk about the event. Give children a few days and then address the topic again. Acknowledge that these topics are difficult to handle and assure your children that they can share their opinions later, if they want.

Children as young as four will hear about tragic events and realize that something bad has happened. It is better for a parent or caregiver to share information with their child instead of hearing it from another child or the media. This insures that their understanding of the event is accurate. The event should be shared in a clear manner that is age appropriate. When children have a developmental delay, the information shared should match their level of intellectual functioning.

Review news broadcasts: If you choose to allow your older children to watch the news, record it beforehand. Preview the program ahead of time to evaluate the contents. If you decide to allow your children to watch it, you can stop or pause the recording to talk, if needed.

Use the core issues of the event to teach values: A number of events such as hate crimes can lead to discussions on vital topics such as the acceptance of people who are different, the negative impact of bullying, and the value of human life.

Help children deal with stress: Children may feel emotionally overwhelmed by their knowledge of traumatic events. Parents and caregivers can help avoid the negative effects of acute and chronic stress by assessing and deal with their children's emotional state. If their stress is not addressed, the child may develop issues such as substance abuse or heart disease.

Focus on any positive things: There may be positive things during the crisis, such as people helping others after a natural disaster or mass shooting. For example, after the 2016 Orlando mass shooting, many people stepped forward to donate blood for the victims.

Address safety issues: Children may need reassurance that their parents have taken measures to ensure their safety at home and at school. Talk about real or imagined threats and develop a family safety plan.

Check in with children: Check in on how they are doing. Consider sharing how you feel about the event and letting children know that it is OK if they feel upset.

Take care of yourself: Recognize the emotions you may feel such as anger, stress, fear, and frustration in response to the topic. Children do pick up on how their parents are feeling. It is OK for parents to share how they are feeling with their children. Dealing with tragedies can be exhausting so take a break from the news for a while, if needed.

Don’ts when handling these topics

Do not avoid talking about the topic: If the topic is not addressed, children may feel that the subject is off-limits, increasing their feelings of anxiety.

Do not assume your children have the same issues: The topics that are bothering your children may not be the same as the ones that are bothering you.

Avoid graphic details and images: Only share enough so that children understand the situation and do not share unnecessary details about tragic events. Keep children away from graphic information on TV, radio, social media, and home computers. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), children who spent most of their time tuned into media coverage on events such as 9/11 reported more trauma-related symptoms. The APA says that it is not known if watching more coverage increases the anxiety levels of children.

Be aware of what is out there in the media: Be prepared to talk to your children about what they may see or hear. Monitor television and social media exposure. Very young children should not be exposed to the media at all.

Use the topic to teach life lessons: Certain topics such as hate crimes against people of another race or LGBT can be used to talk about how people should relate to each other.

Signs children are not coping well

Children may have difficulty processing information and struggle to adjust. Here are some signs that they are having difficulty coping.

  • Sleep problems: sleep disturbances such as nightmares, difficulty falling, staying asleep or waking up
  • Physical complaints: the child complains that they have a headache, feel tired, or generally do not feel well
  • Change in eating habits: the child is eating more or less than usual, or seems to have lost their appetite
  • Regressing to more childlike behavior: the child acts more immature than his or her age, become more demanding and less patient, or become more clingy to parents.
  • Emotional problems: The child may experience more anxiety, fear, sadness, and depression
  • Heightened anxiety: Symptoms of heightened anxiety can include: crankiness, unusual irritability, jumpiness, hyperactivity, nightmares. Older children may demand more attention, become aggressive, or become unusually withdrawn and quiet.

Concluding thoughts

Parents and caregivers want to protect their children from hearing about traumatic events, but this is not always possible in our media-driven world. They can, however, reduce their children's anxieties and fears, and help them cope.


The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
The Traumatic Loss Coalitions for Youth


Promoting Adjustment and Helping Children Cope, American Academy of PediatricS
How to Talk with Kids About Traumatic Events, Rutgers University
10 tips for helping children cope with traumatic events, Oregon Psychiatric Physicians Association

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Carola Finch


Gordon Wright on June 27, 2016:

I've noticed all these things in people well into their adult years.

I suffered a lot of garbage growing up. I thought I could relate to peole who've been through bad things, but what I find is too many of them haven't the courage to grow up and try to heal. You just can't get real with them without triggering them. I used to have triggers but I got over them.

It seems to me most people are either pain virgins who are stuck in childhood innocence, or damaged people who are stuck in a traumatic childhood. I can't relate to either of these.

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