Tips for talking to kids after traumatic events

Lately, it seems like everything that comes on the news is plagued with disaster and acts of violence. And on June 28, the violence hit our backyard when a gunman entered the Capital Gazette newsroom with a shotgun, killing five people and injuring two.

Many struggle with what to say or what to do, while others struggle to bounce back and feel a sense of safety and normalcy. This is true for many adults, but it also applies to children.

Vulnerable by nature, kids can respond to traumatic events in many ways. Some can seem more withdrawn and quiet, while others may have a delayed reaction and demonstrate a change in their behavior weeks or months later.

Many will feel confused, afraid, worried and develop an aggravated sense of being in danger. Children will turn to adults for more information and help to understand what it means. When it comes to children and violence in the news, it is important for you as a parent or guardian to keep communicating with them and reassure them that they are safe. Discussion helps validate a child’s feelings and comforts them during a period of confusion and fear.

Here are a few tips for talking to kids after a traumatic event:

  • Allow them to express their feelings. Give them the opportunity to express their emotions through talking, writing, drawing or whatever creative method they feel most comfortable. Acknowledge their feelings and let them know it’s normal to feel sad or upset. But most importantly, listen to them. There is no need to pressure them to talk or get involved. Give them space and pay close attention for signs of distress.
  • Be patient. Let them discuss other fears and concerns about unrelated issues. Children and youth do not always talk about their feelings and fears willingly. Keep an eye on clues that suggest they have something they want to talk to you about, like hovering around while you are doing something. If they are hovering more than normal, ask how they are doing. They may respond to knowing you care.
  • Keep your explanations age-appropriate. Use their questions as your guide as to how much information you need to give them.
    • Early elementary school: Young children need short, simple information that should reassure them and their safety.
    • Late elementary and early middle school: Children will be more open to asking questions about whether they are safe. It is likely they may need your help separating reality from the “what ifs”.
    • Late middle school and early high school: Adolescents will feel strongly about the causes of violence in society and will express their own opinions. They will share specific suggestions about how to make their environment safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Talk to them about what they can do to become responsible citizens, for example: not providing building access to strangers, reporting strange activity, reporting threats, how to respond to an active shooter, etc.
  • Keep it simple. Be basic and answer questions in a way they can understand. Avoid giving graphic details about tragic circumstances.
  • Monitor TV and social media consumption. Try to watch the news with them. You may wish to limit their access so they have time away from reminders that trigger them reliving a traumatic experience.
  • Don’t use labels. Be careful with blaming any particular cultural or ethnic group. Let children know that they are not to blame when bad things happen. Many influential speakers will attempt to scapegoat when it helps their agenda. This can obscure a child’s sense of safety for decades.
  • Help them see the good. Help children identify good things, such as heroic actions, families who get together to share support and the assistance offered by others.
  • Keep a normal routine. Keeping a regular schedule can be encouraging and promote physical health. Especially self-care routines, like preparing and eating healthy meals, getting enough sleep and exercising.

Some children may require more active interventions, such as family counseling, if they were more directly affected by a traumatic experience. Be careful not to over-shield children. Everyone is bound to hear or see something that might be disappointing. Pretending that something didn’t happen or doesn’t exist can only make things worse. The best thing parents and guardians can do is to continue to support children, communicate with them and help them through challenges with love and kindness. Remind them that tragedy is not the norm and encourage them to be the best version of themselves by being forgiving and compassionate with others. When we care and look after each other as humans, we are bound to create more good than bad.


Daniel Watkins is the nursing manager at Pathways, Anne Arundel Medical Center’s substance and mental health treatment facility. He can be reached at 410-573-5434.

Ask questions, find resources and learn more at