How to Talk to Kids About Traumatic Events

News of shootings, hurricane devastation and more can leave kids feeling anxious. Here's how to talk to your children about tragic events.

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Images of hurricane devastation, wildfires and violence are scary for adults, but for children, it can be traumatic. They can feel a number of emotions that can linger long after the event is over. According to Common Sense Media, kids look to the adults in their lives for how to handle upsetting news. As parents, knowing the best ways to cope can help kids stay calm and rational, too.

As the news covers the most recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, Rebecca Konarz, a Richmond-based clinical social worker specializing in children and trauma, has tips for addressing such tragic events with kids.

Don’t expose kids to the news

“I tell my clients that they shouldn’t watch the news in front of young children,” Konarz says. “We want to limit the stuff they see that isn’t going to affect their everyday lives.”

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She says in her house, she doesn’t watch the news or read the paper in front of her young children. Older children may come across the news on the internet or social media so it’s important to parents to monitor middle school and high school students using those resources.

Common Sense Media suggests setting browser home pages to non-news websites and keeping tabs on kids’ web usage to make sure they aren’t getting misinformation.

Keep communication open

“The first things parents should always do is ask the kids what questions they have,” Konarz says.

When it comes to kids, Konarz says, their worries are not often as deep as adults, but rather more about how an incident will impact their everyday life.

“If you have good, open communication with your child, they will come to you with any concerns,” Konarz says.

Share appropriate details

As parents grapple with how to handle discussing the situation with their children, Konarz says the age of the child is important. She says with kids in third and fourth grade or younger, it’s not important to go into detail. If they might hear about it from older siblings, or at school, then it warrants a conversation.

“When you have the conversation, you don’t want to give them so much information that you are scaring them,” Konarz says. She encourages parents to start with a question. “We might say ‘there has been some pretty scary stuff in the news, did you hear about it?’ If they say ‘no,’ then ask them if they want to know more. If they say ‘yes,’ ask them if they have any questions about it.”

Be honest

Konarz says the kids often have questions, but parents have to tell the truth, even if they don’t know the answer.

“If you don’t have the answer, tell the kids that you will find out for them,” Konarz says – and parents actually have to follow up.

It’s important to ensure kids of what is known and not dwell on the unknowns, she adds.

“Don’t promise your child that you will never die or that you, or they, will never get hurt,” Konarz says.

Reassure safety

Recently, Konarz’s neighborhood experienced an incident involving a stranger approaching a young girl. She says her kids heard about it at school before she could address it at home. When the family talked about it later than evening, she says her approach was to remind them of the things their family does to stay safe.

“The same applies to many situations,” Konarz says. When kids are afraid of car accidents, she says parents can remind them they wear a seat belt to help keep them safe. If kids are nervous about house fires, Konarz says parents can go through escape plans and fire safety tips. “Always reassure them of how we as adults keep them safe.”

Common Sense Media reiterated this point.

“If the news event happened far away, you can use the distance to reassure kids. For kids who live in areas where crime and violence is a very real threat, any news account of violence may trigger extra fear. If that happens, share a few age-appropriate tips for staying and feeling safe (being with an adult, keeping away from any police activity).”

Know what’s happening at school

Konarz says it’s appropriate for parents to ask teachers and principals if they will be addressing certain tragedies.

“Advocate for the kids if you think they shouldn’t be talking about it in school,” Konarz says. She says it’s also important to know that kids are getting information from a reputable source and not from friends.

If children have a lot of fears or anxiety and nervousness over certain situations is impacting their ability to function and concentrate, Konarz says it might be time to have the child talk to a professional. Address these concerns with the child’s pediatrician.

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