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9 Tips for talking to children after a traumatic event

Mar 28, 2023 | Blog, Expert Insights

Every day at Youth Villages, we are charged with helping children who have experienced trauma and toxic stress. They may have been victims of abuse, neglect or have experienced significant and chronic community violence.

As 2023 opens, our country once again has experienced terrible tragedies, and many parents are searching for healthy, productive ways to talk with their children about what happened.

Here are nine tips from Dr. Rebekah Lemmons, managing director of clinical services at Youth Villages.

  1. Monitor your own emotions. Before approaching these delicate subjects, ensure you are calm and can be empathic throughout this discussion. It is hard not to be emotional when talking about terrible tragedies like the recent school shootings or police and community violence. It is important your children see you model how to label your feelings and cope with strong emotions in a healthy manner. They will take their cues from you, and you want to provide them with a safe space. With all the traumatic experiences over the past few years, our bodies need to release energy from stress impacting our nervous systems, so we want to be mindful of getting adequate rest, nutrition and moving our bodies to help release and calm ourselves.
  2. Talk about it – in an age-appropriate way.  In an age-appropriate way. With young children, determine whether your child is likely to hear about the incident. If they are, it’s much better for them to hear about it from you rather than an older sibling or someone on the school bus. If you have children of different ages, it’s best to talk with each of them separately so you can communicate in an age-appropriate way. Mainly, ask questions, listen carefully and don’t over-share. Talk about things in the simplest way the child can understand, always mindful of their age and stage of development. It is great to ensure we address these conversations in a way that makes sense for each child (e.g., some children will be best served talking about this on a walk, swinging, playing basketball or drawing). Consider when and while doing what is best for your conversation.
  3. Listen to the child’s concerns and validate their emotions. Children may feel a range of emotions from fear to anger. Older teens may talk about how things could have gone differently, how they would have heroically stopped the shooter, even how to get retribution. It’s a good time to remind them that all their feelings are valid, and we want to hear their perspective. Hold an open discussion about thoughts and feelings. It is helpful to ask the child what they need to help them feel safe and to help manage their feelings from this.
  4. Answer their questions honestly and directly. Most children are concerned with how the tragedy affects them. They wonder if they’re safe. Older children wonder why someone would do something so awful. Answer these big questions as honestly and directly as possible.
    • It’s important to let children know the incident is over. Let them know they are safe and it’s okay to tell you how they feel. You might ask younger children to name people who will help keep them safe: mom, dad, grandparents, trusted neighbors. At school, it might be the teacher, a counselor or a coach – people they know well and trust.
    • Why do people do these things?  Why did they kill children? Why did they shoot my neighbor? Those are the very hard questions children and teens may ask. It’s OK to tell your child you don’t have the answers. People do bad things sometimes; sometimes we never know why and there are no reasons or explanations. Let your child discuss how he or she feels. Be available and open to talk through these things. Remind children it’s always OK to talk to their teacher or a trusted adult if they feel unsafe or need to process through feelings related to this (e.g., see the school counselor, talk with you about this, set up services if added support is needed such as outpatient therapy or crisis services).
  5. Limit exposure to media. With today’s 24/7 news stations and cell phones in nearly every hand of tweens and teens, emotional photos and detailed coverage of the shooting will be on our screens for days. Younger children should not be exposed to these reports, and it’s best to limit older children’s exposure to continual coverage if possible. Be mindful of older children’s access to social media. Many TikTokers, YouTubers and other social media influencers will also share videos or other information related to the tragedies.
  6. Take comfort in family rituals and routines. Stick with your usual routine to maintain the structure that gives children confidence and security. Spirituality can be a comfort as well. If your family has a spiritual background, it’s perfectly appropriate for you to pray with your children for the families involved. For others, they may want to do something positive or give back to the community or families in other ways (writing cards, sending well wishes, etc.).
  7. Remember, you’re the expert on your child. Every child responds differently to stressful events. Some children are more anxious and may need more reassurance. Others may not be as concerned. Answer your children’s questions and watch their reactions. You’ll know best how to meet their needs.
  8. There is no perfect way to discuss tragic events with a child. These are tough issues for every parent to discuss. There’s no right way to do it, so find the way that’s comfortable for you and your child. Be open and tell your children they can always talk with you about their fears or concerns.
  9. Be watchful in the next days and weeks. Watch for changes in your child’s normal behavior. Behavioral changes may indicate that children need more help in dealing with anxieties, anger and sadness. Talk to your pediatrician if your child begins to have nightmares, shows anxiety/depression, refuses to go to school or to public places, or seems to have difficulty moving forward from these events.

As always, if you think your child needs mental health support, talk to your pediatrician, or find a therapist. If you feel your child is in immediate danger of harming themselves or others, call the national suicide hotline 9-8-8. In Tennessee, you can call the Specialized Crisis Services hotline for immediate help at 855-CRISIS-1 (or 855-274-7471). Or text “TN” to 741741.

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