Tips for talking to children about tragic events

Returning to school Monday after the school shootings in Connecticut will be a challenge for both children and parents, but parents can try to minimize the anxiety and reassure children.

Even very young children can have feelings about scary events.  The good news is that children and youth are often quite resilient.  An important part of children’s positive coping is for parents to make sure that their children feel connected, heard and understood, and loved.

Parents should attempt to try to understand what their child has heard or seen about this event, and ask what their thoughts and feelings might be.  It’s important to allow children to ask questions and to express their feelings.

But parents also should do their best to limit children’s exposure to graphic or disturbing images.  Turn off the TV or talk radio and keep an eye on what they’re viewing online.  When young children see an event repeat on the media, they may feel like the event is occurring again and again. And don’t assume this all goes over their heads: if the TV is on and reports are being broadcast, even the youngest children may be picking up on it.

It’s okay and understandable for parents to have sad or scared feelings, and it’s okay for kids to see that their parents have strong feelings, maybe even get tearful or cry.  This was a very sad and scary event.   But it’s also important for parents to try not to show overly intense emotions.  A child will react to a parent’s reaction, so if parents are having very intense emotions, it’s important for them to find ways to also take good care of themselves so that they can be present for their children’s feelings.

Parents should allow children to ask questions and express their feelings and concerns.  Try to offer straightforward and honest, but age-appropriate explanations.  For example, for a young child it can be important to express, “That’s right, a scary thing did happen, but I’m here to help you feel safe.”

School-age children may want more concrete information about how adults are helping to keep them safe. You can be realistic. Children will see through false promises.  Parents can acknowledge scary feelings about this but also reassure their children that events like this are very rare, and that their community works together to help kids feel and be safe.

Kids may also begin to ask questions about death and may have fears related to dying after hearing about the deaths of children their age.  They may express this in play or through drawing or art.

It’s often best for children to hear about this type of event from their parents or safe, trusted adults. Parents should keep their explanation simple, honest, and age appropriate.  Asking questions first in order to get their child’s understanding lets parents respond to their children’s specific questions and concerns.  Young children are often concerned about their own safety in the present moment.  Are they safe right now?  Are their parents ok?  Older school-aged children may want more factual information about the event.  Parents can and should acknowledge that it was a really scary, terrible thing that happened.  Letting kids talk about how they feel helps them feel connected and cared for, and can help to begin to put their minds at ease.

Over the coming days,  parents should keep an eye out for children who may seem more fearful or clingy, or if they express feelings about going to school. It’s important to open the door to them to talk about it. Ask how they are feeling.  And above all, you know your child. If anxious feelings persist, don’t be afraid to seek consultation or help from a mental health professional.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network offers very helpful resources for parents, caregivers, teachers, and other responders to traumatic events.  The website is available at nctsn.org.


Learn about behavioral and mental health services at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

Kate Rosenblum, PhD, is Clinical Associate Professor in theDepartment of Psychiatry at University of Michigan.  She is also the co-director of U-M’s Trauma and Grief Clinic for Youth, which has a  primary mission is to raise the standard of care, and increase access to best practice care, for traumatized and grieving youth and caregivers. The clinic is led by Julie Kaplow, PhD, TAG Clinic Director and Cheryl King, PhD, and Kate Rosenblum, PhD, as Co-Directors.

University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital is consistently ranked one of the best hospitals in the country. It was nationally ranked in all ten pediatric specialties in U.S. News Media Group’s “America’s Best Children’s Hospitals,” including #4 in the country for heart and heart surgery. In December 2011, the hospital opened our new 12-story, state-of-the-art facility offering cutting-edge specialty services for newborns, children and women.