How to Talk With Kids After a Traumatic Event 

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A woman and a child lie facing each other on their sides, talking
When traumatic events like shootings hit the news, how should you best discuss them with kids? (Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels)

Schools in the United States have become more prepared for mass shootings over the last two decades, and that has meant learning how to talk with kids about active shooters and “bad guys” on school campuses. While the incidence of on-campus shootings is extremely low, they’re something many teachers and parents have prepared for.

It can be particularly disturbing for young children to see kids their own age among the victims of a shooting, as when the face of 6-year-old Stephen Romero spread across the news as a victim of the 2019 mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival.

Now, Wednesday's mass shooting at a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority rail yard in San Jose has once again prompted a conversation about how to talk with kids about tragedy.

And it's not just shootings that can impact children. California's increasingly devastating wildfires, and the toll they take upon local lives and homes, can also be a source of real concern for young people exposed to scary-sounding news and alarming imagery.

“The most helpful thing for parents to share with their kids is that these events are rare and that adults are there to protect them,” said Dr. Stephen Brock, professor of psychology at CSU Sacramento. “We can’t deny the reality of these things, but kids need to be reassured with these facts.”

Some kids find out about the news by seeing it themselves or hearing it discussed at school, home or in their communities. Young children can especially be harmed by this exposure, so experts recommend restricting their access to traumatic news. Kids old enough to have smartphones will likely get misinformation on the internet and social media, so it’s even more important for parents and caregivers to support their kids.

Here are some key steps they can take:

Remind Kids That They Are Safe

Children need to be reassured by their caregivers that they are safe. The American Psychological Association says, above all, reassure:

“... 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.”

Limit Young Children’s Exposure to Traumatic News

Young children have less developed skills to separate facts from fears, so psychologists recommend minimizing a child’s exposure to traumatic news.

“When kids see the news, even if they are not a resident of [the affected place], they have the mistaken perception that they could be shot at any time,” said Brock. “For little ones, turn [the news] off.”

And sometimes, that fear is transferred to children through adult behavior. If adults are behaving in an anxious or fearful manner, kids will pick up on that, especially those in primary grades and younger.

“Kids will look to adults to see how scared they should be,” said Brock.


Observe Your Kids for Verbal and Nonverbal Cues

A parent might overhear a child talking about a traumatic news event, or the child might ask about it. If it looks like the child is curious, engage the child in conversation, and Brock said, “Let their questions be your guide.”

But not all kids can verbalize what they’re feeling, so look for changes in behavior. According to the "Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers" report from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP,) caregivers are advised to:

"Watch for clues that they may want to talk, such as hovering around while you do the dishes or yard work. Some children prefer writing, playing music, or doing an art project as an outlet. Young children may need concrete activities (such as drawing, looking at picture books, or imaginative play) to help them identify and express their feelings."

But if the child is not aware or expressing any interest in a traumatic event it’s best to not bring it up.

“You don’t want to interject traumatic events into a child,” said Brock, who co-authored the report.

Talk With Your Kids in a Way That’s Developmentally Appropriate

Parents can talk with kids about anything, but it must be developmentally appropriate. Communicating with a 15-year-old is going to be different than talking with a 4-year-old. The NASP has this advice on how to explain traumas, especially in schools, to different age groups:

Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give simple examples of school safety like reminding children about exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.

Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.

Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines (e.g. not providing building access to strangers, reporting strangers on campus, reporting threats to the school safety made by students or community members, etc.), communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.

Teens need guidance from their parents, too, especially since they’re absorbing the chatter on social media networks and direct messages from friends. Kids with phones will likely see graphic images through friends and news updates, which can create added trauma and anxiety. Common Sense Media advises parents to check in on their teens:

"Since, in many instances, teens will have absorbed the news independently of you, talking with them can offer great insights into their developing politics and their senses of justice and morality. It will also help you get a sense of what they already know or have learned about the situation from their own social networks. It will also give you the opportunity to throw your own insights into the mix (just don't dismiss theirs, since that will shut down the conversation immediately)."

Maintain a Normal Routine

Brock said, to the extent that it’s possible, maintain a normal routine. This will be helpful for the kid who’s frightened or anxious about a traumatic event.

“The more typical the routine, the more reassuring it can be,” he said.

KQED's Carly Severn contributed to this post. A previous version of this story was published July 29, 2019.