Talking with our Children and Adolescents about Tragedy, Violence or other Dangerous situations

  • Be aware of your own reaction as a parent/guardian/caregiver

    • Be aware of your own thoughts and feelings. You are human and will have reactions to the tragedy. 
    • Take some time to pay attention to your own feelings of anxiety, sadness, as well as anger and frustration about the violence, injury, and/or death.
    • When you are recognizing your own feelings regarding the tragedy, you will be better prepared to listen to your children and distinguish between your reactions and theirs. 
    • You are a critical source of safety and security for your child.
    • Be there for them – you do not need to “fix it”.
    • Your ability to listen calmly to your children’s concerns is one of the most powerful ways of helping them feel safe and secure.
    • Be patient with yourself and others.

    You may need to begin the conversation

    • Not talking about a tragic situation may lead to worry, confusion, fear, and many other emotions in our children.
    • By talking about it, this helps address and correct misperceptions and false information.
    • Listen to the message, not just the words spoken.
    • Accept their feelings.
    • Use language they understand.
    • Make sure you have adequate time to talk without interruptions.

    Emphasize safety

    • Start by asking your child what they already know about school shooting, tragic event, or other disaster.
    • Allow them to express their feelings, concerns, and ask questions.
    • Reassure them and be honest – do not minimize or lie to them.
    • Address any concerns that they may have (e.g., this will happen here, school shootings happen frequently; children are not safe at school).
    • Do not go into graphic details, put the emphasis on safety, and help them identify the plans that are in place to protect them in all types of emergencies.
    • Reassure them that safety is foremost in school staff and other caring adults.
    • We cannot guarantee safety in our world, it is critical for parents/guardians and caregivers to lead and be a buffer between our sensitive children and a world we cannot control.   
    • Our children may not be able to explain or describe their feelings, reactions or worries. They may focus on ways they are acting or feeling the disruption to their lives. Without help from caregivers, their distress may only be expressed in symptomatic or problematic ways in which they are feeling, acting, and interacting.  You may need to give them vocabulary (words) that they can use.
    • Too much news consumption can become overwhelming for students as well as parents/guardians.

    Help them understand that it is normal to be scared

    • We all feel afraid/scared when we feel or perceive that we are in danger.
    • Fear is how our bodies signal us and prepare us for action in times of danger (fight, flight, freeze).
    • Teach positive coping skills.
    • We need to help our children understand that their natural reactions are healthy and normal.
    • It is ok to feel scared. This helps us teach how to tolerate and use and learn coping skills.
    • Help them discern real and perceived danger.

    Helpful hints on how to respond

    • Respond to concerns and questions with factual information. Do not speculate or repeat rumors.
    • Resist over-explaining. The degree of detail students wants and need to know will depend on their age and the specific nature of their concerns.
    • If your student asks questions about the aftermath of a tragic event, ask what their concerns are first, so that you can respond to the specific details of their worries—not what you think their concerns are or should be.
    • If students express anxiety and concern about traumatic events, they may be most concerned about the safety and stability of their immediate world of family, friends, and other important figures in their lives. Focus on these concerns first.
    • If there is no immediate threat to family and friends, reassure and tell them.
    • It is important for parents/guardians and caregivers to be aware of the safety and security plans in place in their student’s schools to communicate to students what adults are doing—and will continue to do—everything possible to keep them safe.
    • Help students know that there is a difference between reporting and tattling or gossiping.
    • Sometimes non-verbal alternatives can be very helpful.  This could include books, clay, coloring, or other manipulatives.
    • Focus on the future, safety, and goals.

    Seek for Routines and normal life patterns

    • Routines provide students with a sense of predictability and control. When routines are disrupted and safety is compromised, students experience changes in ways their brains and bodies work, which can make them feel even less in control of themselves.
    • Strive to return to normal everyday activities and patterns as soon as possible.  This helps restore a sense of safety and security.
    • Remember to eat healthy food.
    • Help with positive sleep patterns and amounts.
    • Encourage positive physical activity.

    Watch for cues and signs of distress and/or trauma

    Remember that it is normal for children to be anxious about tragedies, violence, school shootings, and even emergency drills.

    Pay attention to signs/symptoms of stress reaction when world events threaten their sense of safety, routine, predictability, and order.  Pay particular attention when there is a change from their personal “normal” pattern.

    • Depressed or irritable mood.
    • More needy or clingy and difficulty separating.
    • A resistant and defiant attitude.
    • Difficulty focusing on tasks or activities of daily life.
    • Social isolation or withdrawal.
    • Difficulty concentrating.
    • Physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches.
    • Changes in appetite.
    • Sleep difficulties.
    • Toileting problems.
    • Pre-occupation with frightening thoughts.
    • Perseverating on topics.

    Aspects to consider

    • How physically close to home did the event that occurred?
    • How close to a loved one did the event occur?
    • Do they have family or “friends” near or effected by the event?
    • Has death, injury, or loss of property occurred to someone they know because of this specific catastrophe?
    • How much on-going talk or news (TV, radio, social media, etc.) about the event is the student exposed to? 
    • Has the student suffered previous major losses, or other traumatic disruptions and losses in their lives that may make them more vulnerable to heightened fear or sadness in response to the tragedy? 
    • If students are already psychologically struggling, are there new symptoms or difficulties that have emerged in the aftermath of this recent tragedy?

    Seek for safe adults

    • Remind your child that there are safe adults – teachers, leaders, school staff and first responders – who are there to keep them safe at school.
    • Give them permission to ask to talk to safe adults.
    • Reassure them that these safe adults are doing everything possible to keep them safe.