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When You Can’t Seem to Find the Words: How to Talk to Children about Violence and Traumatic Events

12/19/2012 8:00:00 AM
Written By:
Lorna Tempest, LPC, LMFT

There is no doubt that many people have been shaken up by the recent tragedy that transpired in Newtown, Connecticut. Adults often struggle with how to approach sensitive topics, such as school and community violence, when talking with children and adolescents. We wonder when to talk to the child, how much to share, and how to help them process the thoughts and feelings that are difficult to process even for ourselves.

This can be a frightening and uncertain time for everyone. Remember that children will be looking to the adults in their lives for assurance, comfort and stability. They will be looking to us for information and support. Our reactions and responses to tragedies can impact how children react and their perceptions of safety.

Below are some tips and guidelines that may assist you in having these difficult, but important conversations.

1. Before you speak to a child/adolescent about the tragedy, consider the following:

Don't project your fears onto the child/adolescent. Our own emotional responses to the tragedy can be overwhelming at first, especially as we place ourselves in the position of the children and families directly affected by this event. It is important for adults to acknowledge their emotional responses. Keep in mind that children see and perceive situations differently than adults; therefore it is important for adults to manage their emotions effectively to be of most help to the child.

Understand that you can't completely shield children from what happened. The fact is that children will hear about the tragic event. Even if you eliminate access to information in the home environment, it is impossible to control what information children will be exposed to when interacting with other children and adults at school and in the community. Make a conscious decision about how you and your family will approach this discussion.

2. As you engage in conversation with a child/adolescent about the tragedy:

Make time to talk. Encourage children to talk about their thoughts and feelings, but also be mindful of their readiness to talk. Validate their feelings and explain that all feelings are okay. Be patient, listen and allow their questions to guide you on how much information to share. Some children prefer to express their feelings through writing, drawing, or music. Encourage the use of whatever medium makes them most comfortable and helps them identify and express their emotions.

Model truth-telling and build trust by letting the child hear things, even difficult things, from you directly. Reassure the child that he/she is safe. Finding a way to provide reassurance helps children cope with feelings of worry, distress and uncertainty. We can't promise that nothing bad will ever happen again, but we can provide reassurance by talking about some of the facts. Adults can share that although the event was horrible, that such events do not happen very often. It may also be helpful to share that the person who did the hurting died and is no longer able to hurt anyone else. One person's hurtful actions do not mean that everyone will do hurtful things.

Gear your explanations to the child's age, language, and developmental level.

Early elementary school children do better with brief, simple information balanced with reassurances that their schools and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give simple and concrete examples of school safety.
Upper elementary and early middle school students will likely ask more questions about their safety and what is being done at school to ensure safety. Assistance in separating reality from fantasy may be needed. Discuss safety efforts being made by the school and the community.
Upper middle school and high school studentswill likely have strong and varying opinions about society and the causes of school and community violence. They will have ideas on how to improve school safety and prevention of tragedies. Focus on what children and adolescents can do in following safety guidelines, communicating safety concerns and accessing help and support.

Look for opportunities to reinforce resiliency and compassion for others.
The child/adolescent may have witnessed the violence or heard reports through the media. Be sure to also help them take note of the many stories of resilience and sacrifice. The courage of those who risked their own lives to protect others can be inspiring. Express to the child that you are encouraged by the dedication of security officers, emergency medical teams, and school staff who responded so unselfishly. Focus on the many kind gestures of support that people are expressing. People, including children and adolescents, are resilient and are able to adapt over time to traumatic events. Identifying how people have come together, are helping each other and supporting each other during this tragedy could help strengthen their sense of safety and support.

3. Create and facilitate an environment of safety by:

Reviewing safety procedures. This should include procedures and safeguards at school and at home. Remind the child of specific and concrete safety measures and strategies. Give examples of why their school building or their home is safe. Talk to children about how their school staff works with parents and public safety providers (local police and fire departments, emergency responders, hospitals, etc.) to keep them safe. Discuss the difference between reporting, tattling or gossiping. Help children identify at least one adult at school and in the community to whom they can go if they feel threatened or at risk.

Limit media exposure of these events. Excessive media exposure can exacerbate the stress and anxiety that the child may already be feeling. Adults also need to be mindful of the content of conversations that they have with each other in front of children, even teenagers, and limit their exposure to vengeful, hateful, and angry comments that might be misunderstood. Be aware of the different forms of media to which the child may have access. The repetition of frightening and emotionally overwhelming images can be disturbing and confusing for children. Monitoring and limiting this exposure will help to mitigate the negative impact.

Maintain a normal routine. Adhering to a normal routine can be reassuring and comforting to children, but also try to remain flexible. Knowing what to expect of day-to-day tasks helps with the transition. Ensure that children get plenty of sleep, regular meals, and exercise. Encourage them to keep up with their schoolwork and extracurricular activities but don't push them if they seem overwhelmed.

Children respond to tragedy and traumatic events in a wide variety of ways. Please see the previous blog article Be the Calm Before, During, and After the Storm for a set of common physical, emotional and psychological ways that children and adolescents respond to stress based on their developmental level. Much of the information in this article is also applicable to coping with traumatic events such as school and community violence.


Lorna Tempest is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist working at Colonial Behavioral Health's Outpatient Child and Adolescent Program. She completed her graduate studies at the College of William and Mary and has been with CBH since 2005. Lorna has received specialized training in trauma-related issues. She was also a Disaster Mental Health Volunteer for the American Red Cross, aiding in the recovery of Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans area.

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