Talking to Children About Traumatic Events: How to Help Your Child Cope

Posted on: Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Keywords: Sandy Hook, Mass Shooting, Child Trauma, Talking to Children, Coping with Violence

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Safe Horizon helps thousands of people touched by violence each year. In the wake of a major tragedy, such as the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, many feel overwhelmed and wonder how to talk to their children. Here are some steps to help your family cope.

Each family will find their own ways to talk with their children about traumatic events that will be meaningful to them. While it's important for adults to know that there is no right or wrong way for children to react to trauma, there are things they can do to help children cope more effectively. Here, Safe Horizon expert Nancy Arnow outlines some key strategies:

  • Recognize that children of all ages closely observe how the adults in their lives are reacting. "Children learn coping skills from watching adults experiencing difficult emotions and managing them effectively," says Arnow.
  • Anticipate common reactions. Young children may react with stomachaches, tantrums, nightmares, fearfulness and clinging to adults.
  • Provide children of all ages with opportunities to talk with you about their concerns.
  • Maintain a routine. Children of all ages will benefit from keeping to their usual routine as much as possible. It fosters reassurance and a sense of security.
  • Plan and rehearse emergency safety measures. "It's frightening to think that violence can happen unexpectedly, but you and your children can take charge of certain things to make you all feel more in control," says Arnow.

American Psychiatric Association recommendations include:

  • Create an open and supportive environment where children know they can ask questions.
  • Give honest answers and information. Use words and concepts they can understand.
  • Help children to find ways to express themselves and to know that people are there to help. Remember also that children learn by watching parents and teachers react and listening to their conversations.
  • Don't let children watch too much television with frightening repetitive images.
  • Monitor for physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches or other pains.

Below is a list of resources that families may find helpful as they support their children during this tragic time:

PBS: Parents talking with kids about news
SAMHSA Coping with Violence and Traumatic Events
Child Witness to Violence Project:  How to Help a Child After Trauma

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