Talking to Children After a Tragedy

As we grapple with the tragedies that have recently unfolded -mass shootings, natural disasters, war, racial attacks, and firearms, among others- parents, teachers, caregivers, and other adults need to be prepared to explain these situations to their children.

The events that we are witnessing -regardless of it being on TV, social media or in person- can be frightening for our children and our youth. Pretending there is no danger or nothing to worry about will not lessen their concern. Their age, previous experiences, if they identify with the victims, how they cope with stress, and the way they experienced the event will determine their reaction. By talking to them in a way that they can understand we can help reduce their fear and anxiety.

Below you will find a list of behaviors to be on the lookout for, some suggestions on talking to your children about it, and finally, a list of resources where you can find more information.

Signs of Trauma

Children of all ages may have a hard time expressing their fears, but that does not mean they aren’t concerned. It is important to be aware of their behavior and to know what signs to look out for in order to help them overcome this trauma in the best way and as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, if children continue to be very upset it is recommended that parents talk to a professional.

Infant to 6-year-olds:

Infants may cry more, throw more tantrums or be crankier than usual. They may also want to be held more or show signs of anguish when separated from their parents. 

Older children may return to behaviors they had outgrown, such as bed-wedding, toilet accidents, difficulty falling asleep; or show signs of nervousness.

School-age children:

Children 7-12 years of age may show signs of sadness or may be more irritable than usual. They may also be easily startled, and fear that the event will happen again. They may have trouble concentrating in school, their performance may be affected, they may be acting out, or they might simply be refusing to attend. It is also common to see significant changes in their appetite and a loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed. Other signs are shadowing their parents around the house, problems sleeping, and continuous nightmares as well as stomachaches, headaches, and dizziness.


Preteens and teens may show many of the symptoms common in younger children. In addition, adolescents may respond to trauma by acting out: skipping school, reckless driving, alcohol or drug use, arguing with parents and teachers. It is also frequent to see adolescents withdrawing themselves from their family and friends as well as their after-school activities.

Special needs children:

Children with special needs may feel more intensely distressed or worried than other children and may not know how to communicate it. Some may show signs immediately, others may take months. They may need more explanations of the event, it is important to reassure them with words of kindness, comfort, and positive physical contact such as hugs. It is important for parents and caregivers to talk to a professional about the possible signs so that they can recognize them and respond accordingly.

Starting the Conversation

Make sure to always have a conversation with your children after a major event, by talking to them you will be able to notice if it affected them and how. That will set the tone for you to decide what type of conversation you need to have, and how deep it needs to be.

It is very possible that children may be getting false information, both from their peers and from social media. Parents, teachers, caregivers, and other adults should correct the misinformation.

These are a few things you should do to have a conversation that will help them cope with the situation:

  • Start the conversation.
  • Find out what they know.
  • Tell them what truly happened; correct inaccurate information.
  • Be frank but avoid graphic or unnecessary details.
  • Allow kids to discuss their fears and concerns. Don’t minimize their feelings.
  • Encourage them to ask questions.
  • Share your feelings.
  • Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t have all the answers.
  • Assure them they are safe.
  • Let them know that they are welcome to talk to you about the situation at any time.
  • After having the conversation, restore routines as quickly as possible.
  • Limit exposure to media and other sources with images of the tragedy.
  • Spend time together; have meals as a family, include them in your activities at home, take them on your errands.
  • Hug them, hold them, cuddle them, and kiss them often. Make them feel safe!

List of Resources

You can find additional information in the following websites:

Disaster and Trauma Resource Center (  (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry)

Talking to Children about the Shooting ( (The National Child Traumatic Stress network)

Helping Children Cope with Emergencies | CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Emotional Recovery | Disaster Relief | Red Cross  (The American Red Cross)

How to Talk With Kids About Tragedies & Other Traumatic News Events – (