Distraught teen girl being consoled


Facing Tragedy

Talking to Children about Traumatic Events

Bad news can’t be avoided. We’re bombarded daily with powerful scenes of social violence, extreme weather and terrorism, which can cause overwhelming anxiety. So parents need to be ready to talk with their children about scary situations in a sensitive, helpful way. Here’s expert advice on how to do it.

Acknowledge Your Feelings
First, “it’s important for parents to be in touch with their own feelings about the event,” says clinical psychologist Nerina Garcia-Arcement, Ph.D. You may feel overwhelmed with sadness and fear, and need to tend to your own emotions before initiating difficult conversations with kids.

What to Watch out for
If, even after talking your child through his or her anxiety over an emotionally alarming occurrence, they exhibit any of the behaviors listed below, reach out to a teacher, school counselor or child psychologist for professional advice.
• Persistent sleep disruption and/or intense nightmares
• Loss of appetite
• Extreme sadness or withdrawal; talk of self-harm
• Preoccupation with fear and safety
• Development of separation anxiety or bedwetting
• Aggressive or destructive behavior

Talk to other adults who are your support system and feel your way through things. Get your thoughts in order. And don’t push bad feelings aside too soon. Garcia-Arcement says suppressed emotions may bubble over or lead to deeper psychological problems like depression and anxiety disorders. Getting a grip on your own feelings will allow you to talk with your children in a calmer, more focused way.

Ease Into It
If your child doesn’t know a tragedy occurred, think hard before bringing it up. Very young children may not need to know what happened unless the situation directly affects your family. “Kids interpret what they see and hear very literally,” says former school counselor Julia Cook, M.A., author of Grief is Like a Snowflake. That’s why it’s important to limit kids’ exposure to media. Each time a child hears or sees the bad news, he or she may think another tragedy occurred. When a discussion does arise, start by asking children what they already know. “Base the information you share on your child’s knowledge and on the questions he or she asks,” says Garcia-Arcement. Offer just enough information to address children’s concerns and assure them that they are safe. Avoid giving too many details that could overwhelm both of you.

Feel your own eyes welling up? It’s okay if parents cry when they’re discussing tragic events with kids. This models healthy emotional expression, Garcia-Arcement says. Your tears show your children that it’s okay to feel sadness and express it in public. That’s an important lesson. Take the learning one step further by labeling your feelings with specific emotion words such as sad, angry or afraid. This gives kids a richer vocabulary for talking about their own experiences.

Encourage Action
Getting back to a normal routine also helps children cope, Cook says. Spending time with friends and teachers at school stabilizes kids’ environment and strengthens their social networks – the most important determinant of resiliency. Keep your family plugged in to your community through church groups, play dates and activities, even if you’d rather stay home. Withdrawal magnifies distress.

Give your child lots of ways to express insecurities without words. Hands-on play and art activities can be therapeutic because they allow children to explore their feelings without the pressure of high-intensity conversations. During play, feelings may be disguised in fantasy or exaggerated in ways you hadn’t expected. Not to worry. Although parents may not understand kids’ playtime behavior, experts say this is the natural way children make sense of their experiences.

Parents can also help kids regain a sense of hope by offering opportunities to do something about what happened. Children can make cards to send to families affected by a tragedy, or collect money or supplies to donate to aid organizations. “Feeling helpful is a way to regain control and find some normalcy in the midst of chaos,” says Garcia-Arcement. Let each child choose if and how she or he wants to contribute.

Keep Watch
Parents shouldn’t assume children have moved past a tragedy just because they aren’t talking about it. Take note of pronounced behavior changes such as decreased appetite or aggression. After a tragic event, young children may regress to a previous stage of development, Garcia-Arcement says. They may develop intense separation anxiety or say they’re afraid of the dark, even though they’ve been sleeping with lights out for years. Trust your intuition as a parent. Kids’ reactions to trauma vary enormously.

Some children will try to avoid talking about what happened; Cook says that’s perfectly fine. “Never force a child to ask a question or to talk about an incident until he or she is ready,” she says. Instead, continue to create a loving, supportive environment with lots of hugs and together time. Kids may not need to discuss things directly to register a sense of comfort and safety.

Be Aware
Emotions can resurface and even intensify long after a tragedy passes. Check in with your child periodically by asking how he or she is feeling about the event. This will help you gauge how well they’re coping and remind them that you’re willing to talk about it. By kindling a spirit of openness and compassion, your children will know that they can share with you anything that’s on their minds.

Need Extra Help?

Look to the following for additional resources on how to navigate stormy emotional seas with your child:

Websites & News Articles
• Children's Bereavement Center www.childbereavement.org
Talking With Children About Loss
• Child Trends www.childtrends.org
Resources to Help Children in the Wake of a School Shooting
• National Association of School Psychologists www.nasponline.org
Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers
• National Child Traumatic Stress Network www.nctsn.org/trauma-types
Terrorism and Natural Disasters
• Healthy Children www.healthychildren.org
Talking to Children About Tragedies and other News Events
• Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration www.samhsa.gov
Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event: A Guide for Parents, Caregivers and Teachers
• Center for Parenting Education www.centerforparentingeducation.org
When Disaster Strikes: Talking to Children About Traumatic Events
• Mayo Clinic www.mayoclinic.org
Helping Children Cope: Tips for Talking about Tragedy
• Huffington Post www.huffingtonpost.com
9 Tips for Talking to Kids About Trauma

Children and Trauma: A Parent's Guide to Helping Children Heal* by Cynthia Monahon
The Scared Child: Helping Kids Overcome Traumatic Events* by Barbara Brooks and Paula M. Siegel
A Brighter Tomorrow: A Workbook to Help Kids Cope with Traumatic Events by Erainna Winnett (ages 7-12)
A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret M. Holmes (ages 4 and up)
Why Did it Happen? Helping Children Cope in a Violent World* by Janice Cohn (ages 3 and up)

* Available through the Miami-Dade public library system.

211 Helpline
Funded by The Children’s Trust, the 211 Helpline is staffed by specially trained Jewish Community Services of South Florida counselors 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (who speak English, Spanish and Creole), and is available to parents, caregivers and adolescents looking for information on and referrals to local crisis counseling resources.

Compiled by Elisa Chemayne Agostinho