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 such as mass shootings, terrorism, and tragedies associated with natural disasters. Children may be at a loss as to how to deal with the news. They may sense their parents' anxiety, fear, and anger at these events and want to know more about what is going on.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents, caregivers, teachers, and others help children to filter stories about traumatic events. This information should be presented to them in a manner that children can accept and adjust. Parents and guardians need to help their children to not only understand what is happening in an age-appropriate way but be able to grasp concepts such as public safety, gun control, sexuality, and religious freedom.

Signs Children Are Not Coping Well

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, children may have difficulty processing information and struggle to adjust. Here are some signs that they are having difficulty coping.

Signs A Child May Be Struggling

  • Sleep problems: Sleep disturbances such as nightmares, difficulty staying asleep.
  • Physical complaints: The child complains that they have a headache, feel tired, or generally do not feel well.
  • Changes 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, becomes more demanding and less patient, or becomes more clingy to parents.
  • Emotional problems: The child may experience more anxiety, fear, sadness, and depression. Children may feel emotionally overwhelmed by their knowledge of traumatic events.
  • Heightened anxiety: Symptoms of heightened anxiety may include: crankiness, unusual irritability, jumpiness, hyperactivity, nightmares.
  • Changes in older children: Older children may demand more attention, become aggressive, or become unusually withdrawn and quiet.

Parents and caregivers can help avoid the negative effects of acute and chronic stress by assessing and dealing with their children's emotional state. If stress is not addressed, the child may develop issues such heart disease or substance abuse later in life.

Conversation Guidelines

According to experts such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are several things that parents can do to address traumatic situations.

Talk About the Issues When Children are Ready

Parents should be open to discussing these topics and recognize that their children may still be processing the event. Children are not always ready to talk about what is actually on their minds. Parents should not push if the child refuses to talk about the event. Children should be given a few days and then be given the opportunity to address the topic again. Parents should acknowledge that these topics are difficult to handle and assure their children that they can share their opinions.

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 children instead of them hearing it from an outside source. Doing this ensures 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.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

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

Listen to Them And Check In

When your children want to talk about the events, parents should listen to their questions and fears. Their fears are often worse than the reality of the situation. Later, parents should check in on how they are doing. Caregivers can share how they feel about the event if appropriate and let their children know that it is OK if they feel upset. Older children and teens might ask more questions and benefit from getting more information.

Address Safety Issues

Parents should watch for emotions such as anger, stress, fear, and frustration in response to the topic. Children may need reassurance that their parents have taken measures to ensure their safety at home and at school. Parents can create a family safety plan to make their children feel more secure.

Don’ts When Handling These Topics

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

Graphic details and images should be avoided. Parents should only share enough so that children can understand the situation and avoid adding unnecessary details about tragic events. Children should be kept 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 turned into media coverage on events such as 9/11 reported more trauma-related symptoms.

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.


Promoting Adjustment and Helping Children Cope, American Academy of Pediatrics
What You Can Do to Help Children Cope with a Disaster, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Addressing Children’s Emotional Needs in a Time of Crisis: Tips from the Pros, Johns Hopkins Medicine
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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