How to Talk to Your Children About Traumatic Events

Be honest, listen and be supportive
Traumatic events in the media

The possibility of children being exposed to anxiety-inducing news, whether at home or at school, can leave many parents wondering what they can do to calm the fears of their children, whether they’re young or into their teen years.

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Taking an active approach and discussing difficult events in age-appropriate ways can help a child feel safer and more secure. Pediatric psychologist Katherine Lamparyk, PsyD, says it’s important to have an open and honest conversation with your child about everything they might be hearing and seeing – especially if they’re seeing it on TV or hearing it from other people. 

Be aware and make a plan

Before talking to your child about what’s happened, be sure you’re prepared for the conversation to come and create a stable, comforting environment for the child.

  • Take note of your child’s behavior. Be aware of signs that your child is having trouble coping with bad news. Sleeping problems, including nightmares, can be signs of such issues as are complaints of feeling unwell and changes in their behavior. Look for changes like becoming more irritable, clingy, withdrawn, sad or fearful.
  • Make sure you’re taking care of yourself. Difficult news and tragedies can be exhausting for everyone. Remember to manage your own stress with self-care, including taking a break from the news, engaging in physical activities and doing something that will lift your and spirits and those of your family. Being in a good emotional space will help guide the conversation with your child.
  • Think about what you want to say. It’s okay to practice in your head, to a mirror or with another adult. Advanced planning may make the discussion easier.
  • Find a quiet moment. Perhaps this is after dinner or while making the next day’s lunch. This is a time and place where your children can be the center of your attention.
  • Make sure they’re ready. “It’s important to talk with your children about tragedies, but don’t force them to talk about it until they’re ready,” Dr. Lamparyk says.

Be calm, ask questions and listen

One you and your child are ready to talk, it’s important to remain clear and be honest. “Children are intuitive and pick up on more than you think they do,” adds pediatric psychologist Kate Eshleman, PsyD. “They can sense when adults are talking in whispers or being hush-hush about something,” Dr. Eshleman says. “They’re also good at sensing fear or anxiety in adults, which in turn can make them feel that way too.”

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  • Ask open-ended questions. A good way to start is by asking your child or children what they’ve already heard. Most children will have heard something, no matter how old they are. They may have heard comments from friends or overheard an adult conversation about it, but they might not fully understand it. This can cause kids to share something that might not be true or repeat misinformation, which can lead to more confusion.
  • Explain the truth in a way that your child will understand. You’ll need to explain things slowly and carefully and use words that won’t cause panic or more confusion. Talk in a way that’s appropriate to their age and level of understanding and don’t overload the child with too much information. Be honest with your answers and information and remember that it’s okay to answer with “I don’t know.” “Children can usually sense if you’re not being honest,” says Dr. Lamparyk. “It’s not comforting if they think you’re not being straight with them.”
  • Avoid graphic detail. Don’t let small children watch violent images. “Turn off the TV while there’s still heavy media coverage of an event,” says Dr. Lamparyk. “Repetitive, upsetting images can be disturbing, especially to young children.” With older children, try to review, listen, read or watch information together so you can stop and discuss the news as needed.
  • Monitor social media intake. Older children often have access to the news and graphic images through social media and other applications. Be aware of what’s out there and take steps in advance to talk to children about what they might hear or see. And setting a time limit for scrolling may be a good idea.

Provide comfort and reassurance

  • Ask how they feel about all the news. This way you can reassure them if they express feelings of fear or worry, Dr. Eshleman says. Let your child know that his feelings, reactions and questions relating to a tragedy are important — don’t dismiss them as “childish.”
  • Share your feelings with your child. It’s okay to acknowledge your feelings, too. You can teach your child that emotions are natural and help us get through difficult times.
  • Continue to offer reassurance. At the end of the conversation, reassure your children that you will do everything you know how to do to keep them safe and to watch out for them. Reassure them that you will be available to answer any questions or talk about this topic again in the future. Reassure them that they are loved.
  • Remind them they can always come to you with questions. Keep an open and honest relationship with your child about events. No one can predict exactly how situations evolve, but keeping tabs about how your child is feeling in the following days or weeks is important. Explain that you’re always there to talk or answer any questions they have.
  • Seek professional help. If you are feeling stuck, overwhelmed or your child shows persistent signs of stress, you may want to consider talking to someone who could help. “Your child’s pediatrician or a licensed mental health professional can assist you in making a plan,” Dr. Eshleman says.

It’s understandable that young children will react to traumatic events with confusion and anxiety. Parents, teachers and other adults can help by listening and responding honestly and consistently.

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