When Disaster Strikes:
Talking to Children about Traumatic Events


Trauma Causes Stress

Natural disasters, man-made crises such as car or plane accidents, or violent episodes like shootings or bombings happen all too often these days.

Traumatic events can have profound effects not only on those who have been directly involved and influenced, but also on people close to those people and to witnesses. 

Effects of 24/7 Media Coverage

The extensive media coverage that has become so prevalent in our world means that the circle of witnesses has expanded to include even those who were not present at the event.  The 24-hour news coverage results in graphic and immediate images of major national or world calamities being broadcast into our homes.

It is becoming more and more difficult to prevent children from experiencing such disasters indirectly and vicariously through the media.

Anxiety in Children

Large-scale tragedies can be extremely disturbing to children, who thrive on predictability and security.  When exposed to these catastrophic events, whether personally or through the media, children often display fears and anxieties that may seem extreme to adults.  Usually, these reactions are normal.

However, without proper assurance, the impact of events like these can remain with children for a long time, even throughout their lives.

The following information can help you to understand and ease your child’s fears and concerns. This way they can become resilient enough to weather the most traumatic disaster, and grow even stronger from the experience.

7 Ways Parents Can Parents Help

1. Love and Nurture Your Children

  • Express your love.
    Tell your children you love them more than you usually do, verbally and physically. Give plenty of hugs, even if your child doesn’t show outward signs of distress. Hugs, sitting close to read together, and giving back rubs can help restore a child’s sense of safety and security.

  • Be available.
    Be there for your children as much as possible when they need to talk about the disaster. You may want to save phone calls, texts, emails and social media activities for after your child’s bedtime so that you can be available to them and so they don’t get scared by your strong reactions to the event.

  • Give them opportunities to express their thoughts and feelings.
    Remember that of all the things children/people need in times of crisis, the most important is the chance to talk about their reactions and experiences.

  • Focus on your children’s feelings and thoughts.
    When thinking about how to talk to them, take your lead from them in terms of what they need and what they are thinking and feeling. Do this without judgment or suggestions.

  • Foster a sense of connection.
    Stay close if possible. If you must leave, prepare the child well, assure him he will be safe and you will be back.

  • Look for signs of anxiety.
    These can be in the form of physical symptoms, a change in behavior, a reluctance to go to school, acting out or withdrawing, or increased clinginess.


2. Reassure Your Children

  • Maintain normal routines as much as possible.
    They are reassuring during times of stress. Keeping an unbroken sense of security and routine is one of the most important things you can provide for your children, who find comfort and safety in the routines and structure of their everyday lives. Encourage your child to participate in normal activities and keep the family routine as much as possible.

  • Keep bedtime calm.
    Allow more time than usual for this transition, if needed.

  • Reassure your child that he, your family and community are safe.
    Let him know that you will protect him, and that events like this are rare. Tell him that there will always be someone there to protect and take care of him. Although we can’t give total reassurance, we can tell our children of our hopes that these kinds of tragedies will not happen again and that all the adults in their world are doing everything possible to keep them safe.

  • Give a young child a comforting toy or something of yours to keep.
    This can be a scarf, a photo, a note, etc. Your child may be afraid of separating from you; keeping a reminder of you close by may help.

  • Encourage discussion or the expression of feelings.
    Allow anxieties to surface. Let your child know it is normal to feel worried or upset. Supply words if your child has difficulty labeling how he feels.

  • Share your own reactions.
    This should be done in moderation and without overwhelming your children with your feelings. Let them know that you share some of their concerns.

  • Talk about safety measures that are in place.
    If appropriate to the situation and to the child, let your child know about your family’s and the children’s school have in place to keep your child safe.


3. Teach Your Children

    Interpret the Event

  • It is up to parents to interpret what has happened.
    Provide facts, in line with your child’s age and level of understanding. Keep your answers to your children’s questions simple and age-appropriate.

  • Limit your child’s and your own exposure to media images of the crisis.

  • Keep your children talking about what they are hearing and seeing.
    As much as you can,encourage your child to talk about what they think happened and how they are feeling.

  • Be patient when he asks the same questions many times over.
    Children often use repetition of information as a source of comfort and to make sense of what is happening. Try to be consistent with answers and information.

  • Teach children that being violent or killing people is never acceptable.
    Make sure they know that people make mistakes and do harmful things, but violence or hurting another person is never an appropriate way to solve a problem or express one’s feelings and frustrations.

  • Help children understand that they are good people.
    Let them know that you believe they would never commit such a destructive act, and that they are certainly not responsible for the disaster (as young children might think).

  • Tell your children about the heroes.
    Point out to them the extraordinary things the police, firefighters, emergency rescue teams, everyday heroes did in the face of the tragedy, those who respond to the disaster and help get the situation under control afterwards.

    • Explain how they are always there to help.
      Talk about ways the adult world was competent to take charge when the crisis occurred.

    • Encourage your children to use these heroes as role models.
      Let them know that when they are adults they to will be able to help people and make a difference in the world.

    • Explain the qualities that make someone a hero.
      Point out that anyone can be a hero by putting aside personal needs to reach out to help others in need.

    Teach Coping Skills

    If your child seems reluctant to talk, but you believe she is upset, you can do any of the following depending on what you think she would respond best to:

  • Older children can keep a journal.
    If they seem very upset, suggest that they record their reactions and feelings about what happened. They can then talk to you about what they wrote, if they want to.

  • Younger children can draw pictures.
    They can talk about what they drew or they can act out how they are feeling with puppets. You can read aloud from children’s books about difficult situations that the main characters have dealt with and survived.

  • Find ways to become involved in helping activities.
    For example, you and your children can provide aid to victims or do fundraising to lessen feelings of isolation, helplessness and powerlessness.

  • Talk to other adults about your feelings.
    Do not burden or overwhelm your children. When you get your needs met, then you can be available to care for your children’s needs.


4. Be a Good Role Model

  • Children are influenced by their parents’ reactions.
    Children carefully watch parents to see how serious events are, how worried they should be, how much danger there might be around them. Children often adopt the same feelings and behaviors as their parents.

  • Remain calm.
    Share your feelings to a limited degree so that you are focusing on your children’s needs and they do not become overwhelmed.

  • Children need your attention.
    Children who are very stressed may try to find ways to get parents to focus on them and away from the outside events that are taking parents’ attention away from them.


5. Involve your Family in Helping Activities

  • Bring a sense of control and hope.
    Doing something to help lessens feelings of isolation, helplessness and powerlessness.

    • Write letters to people who have helped abate the crisis.

    • Join the possible efforts of religious or community organizations to contribute to those directly affected by the crisis.


6. Limit your Child’s Exposure to Media Images

With the advent of 24 hours news coverage, it is possible to watch the same traumatic events over and over again, each time traumatizing the viewer anew.

  • Shield your child from the graphic details and pictures in the media.

  • Media viewing may exaggerate fears.
    Children may believe that each time they see an image of the event, it is really happening againand again. They also may misinterpret the images and the commentary due to their limited capacity to understand abstract principles and concepts.

  • Watch the news with your school-aged and older children.
    If they are interested in knowing more about the tragedy, view with them so you can talk about what you have seen and heard.


7. Encourage discussion or the expression of feelings

  • Children need someone they trust.
    They need someone who will listen to their questions, accept their feelings, and be there for them. Open and thoughtful communication with your child will comfort and reassure her.

  • Don’t worry about knowing exactly the right thing to say.
    There is no answer that will make everything okay for now. Silence from you won’t protect them from what is happening, but it will prevent them from understanding and coping with it.


    Help Your Child Understand his Feelings

    If you see signs of anxiety or believe that your child is reacting to a traumatic event, you can help him understand his feelings, decrease his anxiety, and decrease any symptomatic expression of the anxiety.

  • Take your lead from your children.
    Consider what they need and what they are thinking and feeling.

  • Ask your child what she thinks happened.
    If she has any misconceptions, you can help to clarify the reality. If she knows upsetting details that are true, don’t deny them. Instead, listen carefully and let her talk about her fears:

    “Tell me more about that.”
    “Are there other things that are bothering you right now?”
    “What have you heard about . . . .?”
    “What do you think happened?”

  • Allow Anxieties to Surface

  • Do not minimizing your child’s fears and concerns.
    The anxiety and any symptoms expressing it is a way for him to tell you that he feels sad, scared, helpless, etc.

  • It is okay if your children get upset.
    When they talk about scary or disturbing things, you can then reassure them and help them to feel safe and secure.  

    Use physical contact, embracing, hugging, talking to him, and accept regressive behaviors. This behavior will subside when he feels safe again.

  • Help your child talk about the crisis.
    Let her know it is normal to feel worried or upset. Listen carefully to understand what she is really trying to say. Help her use words to describe her feelings, like “angry,” “sad,” “scared, etc. Putting their thoughts and experiences into words give children a sense of control.

  • If your Children Ask Questions about Safety

  • Provide reassurance
    Often they want to know that their immediate world of family and friends are safe now.  The amount of detail about security in the broader world that children will find useful will depend on their age.

  • Before responding, ask what your children’s ideas are.
    Then you can address the details of their concerns.

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Understand Children’s Reaction to Trauma

Adults and children respond differently to crises, tragedies and trauma.

  • Adults can understand events with more logic and rational thinking.

  • Children’s intellectual abilities are not so well developed.

Children, especially very young ones, think magically.  They are unrealistic and unable to understand complex and abstract concepts.


How Children See the World

Children are very self-centered and can believe that the world revolves around them and that everything that happens is related to them.  Therefore, they believe that they and their families are vulnerable to the remote crises they hear about.

During such stressful times, they may become even more concerned about what affects them personally than usual.  Expect your children to think more about themselves, at least at first.  Once they feel that their needs are being met, they are more likely to think about helping others.


How Children Show Anxiety

There is no one way in which children express worries and fears at times of greater stress. Look for signs of increased anxiety in your children, remembering that each one may communicate upset feelings in different ways.

  • Physical symptoms
    These can include such as stomach aches or headaches.

  • Behavioral changes
    These can include such things as unusual hyperactivity, drop in grades, not wanting to go to school, excessive crying, withdrawal, increased clinginess, loss of interest in their usual activities, or lack of their usual enjoyment in life.

  • Tearfulness, sadness, talking about scary ideas or scary feelings.

  • Fighting with peers, parents or other adults or not being able to get along.

  • Regression
    Many children return to an earlier age of behavior when they remember feeling safer.  Younger children may wet the bed, want a bottle, begin to thumb suck again or use baby talk; older children may not want to be alone.  It is important to be patient and comforting if your child responds this way.

  • Sleep disorders
    Some children have difficulty falling asleep, other may wake frequently or have troubling dreams, others may have nightmares.  Give your child something that will comfort him when going to sleep, like a stuffed animal, a blanket, a flashlight.The bedtime routine may take longer than it used to for a while. Be patient; it may take a while before your child can sleep through the night again.

  • Acting out
    A child may show distress by provocative and angry behaviors.  You can help the child by setting limits on behavior, making him feel safe and secure, and encouraging him to express his feelings in words or through creative outlets.

  • Irritability or difficulty in being calmed and soothed.

  • Overreaction to minor stress
    A child may overreact to incidents or minor changes.  This is a common reaction and can last a few weeks to a few months.

  • Feeling helpless
    A feeling of powerlessness is painful for both adults and children. Being active in caring for or helping others, writing to people who have been hurt or thanking those who have directly helped in responding to the trauma can give a child a feeling of hope and control.  Look for ways for your child and family to help those directly affected by the tragedy.


Children May Not Know How to Deal with their Feelings.

  • They can’t always identify their own feelings.

  • They are often overwhelmed by their feelings.

  • They often don’t know how to express or put words to their feelings.

  • They can express their feelings in a variety of ways, some that are confusing to parents and are indirect (see above: Signs of Increased Anxiety).  If you listen to your children’s questions and observe their behavior, you will have a better idea of what they are concerned about.

  • Know your children’s level of intellectual, emotional and social maturity and use this knowledge as a guide for what to tell your children, how to respond to them, and to understand their reactions to the crisis.

Listen and watch carefully to sense the depth of your particular child’s reaction to the traumatic event. Tune in to the temperamental and developmental needs of each child; some will openly express their feelings and others will need to be guided into sharing.


Children’s Unique Reactions Through the Ages

Children of different ages need different approaches to help them through the crisis.  Each child will have a personal way of absorbing information and expressing his feelings about the crisis depending on his temperament, age and maturity.

Armed with the following guidance, you can decide how much to share and how much to protect your children from the details of the situation.



Infants sense the emotions of their caregivers and react in response.
They depend totally on the adults who care for them. 

  • If the adult is calm and confident, the baby will feel secure.

  • If the adult is anxious and overwhelmed, the baby will feel anxious and unsafe and may become fussy, may not become soothed when fretful, or have sleep or eating disorders.


Young Children and Preschoolers

  • Children are unrealistic.
    Especially young children are unable to understand complex and abstract concepts.

  • Young children need special care.
    Toddlers and preschoolers have begun to interact with the broader environment but still depend on their caretakers to interpret the events that are happening around them.

    As with infants, if the adult is calm, the child will feel secure; if not, the child will feel unprotected.

  • Answer questions honestly but not in such detail as to overwhelm. This might confuse the child’s limited ability to fully comprehend the situation.

  • Understand specific worries of preschoolers.
    Parents can do this by listening to their children’s comments and questions and observing their play and their behavior. Once they understand their children’s worries, they can answer questions, correct misunderstandings and offer reassurance.


Elementary School Children

School aged children are better equipped to understand abstract concepts than younger children, and therefore can better comprehend the meanings behind the tragic events. You may be able to tell them more details about what happened and why.

  • Appreciate the limits and abilities of elementary school age children.

  • Children tend to blame themselves.
    Children younger than 7 or 8 tend to think that if something goes wrong, it is their fault. They might believe that they are responsible for the crisis because they “did something wrong.” Be sure your child understands that he did not cause this trauma.

  • Exposure to television and media should be limited.
    Children can be traumatized by images they cannot understand. If they are exposed to the media, an adult should be present to discuss what has been seen and heard. As mcuh as possible, limit media exposure.

  • Answer questions with accurate information.
    Relate your answers to your children’s worries  Friends’ ideas should be discussed and misinformation corrected.

  • They may need specific reasons to believe that all of us are safe.
    You can reassure them that despite the crisis they will be taken care of.

  • School-aged children may not want to talk for long periods of time about the trauma.
    They may visit their concerns briefly and then turn to play or do schoolwork. This is a way that children can avoid feeling overwhelmed or too scared. To recognize whether and when they have concerns about what happened:

    • pay attention to changes in behavior and mood.
    • ask about children’s ideas.


Pre-adolescents and Adolescents

  • They may be able to understand more about the trauma.
    This means they can handle exposure to some images and information that younger children cannot adequately understand. Parents can use the teen’s more advanced ability to think and talk to discuss their thoughts, feelings and worries.

  • Some older children are still not emotionally mature enough.
    These teens are not able to process the information about the event or disaster without becoming overly anxious. They need to be shielded from some of the media coverage and allowed much opportunity to talk about what they are seeing and hearing.

  • Drastic changes in behavior might indicate high levels of distress.

  • Forcing teens to talk about their feelings is not helpful.
    Instead, make sure your teens have a variety of opportunities to talk to people they are comfortable with and who can help them understand their feelings, when they are ready.

    Just because your teen hasn’t said something about the trauma doesn’t mean he isn’t affected by it.

  • Teens can talk to adults or to peers to understand what happened.
    Some older children will benefit from joining in the adult conversations and some are more comfortable talking in groups with their peers.

    • Some older children are reluctant to discuss their needs and feelings with their peers who might not see this as acceptable.

    • Some older children are reluctant to discuss their needs and feelings with you because their developmental task is to separate and become independent of their parents. You can let your teen know that you are available if he wants to talk with you about what happened.

  • Let your kids talk first about what they think happened.
    It is often easier to begin discussions by asking your children what their friends and classmates are thinking, feeling and saying about the tragedy. 

    In most cases, it is not a good idea to force your children to talk with you, but instead, keep the door open for them to come back and discuss the crisis and their concerns about it later.

  • Be honest.
    When you talk about what happened, don’t diminish the nature or extent of the tragedy.

    Share clear and accurate information.  Ask your teen what he thinks happened and what other kids in school are saying. Correct any false fears or misinformation.

  • Talk with your teen about your own feelings.
    Explain how the trauma is affecting you, admit your feelings, but don’t burden your teen with your fears and worries.  Find other adults to talk to about those.

  • Encourage your teen to stay connected to others.
    Instead of isolating himself, he will be better off if he has people he can talk with and share thoughts and feelings.

  • Temporarily lower expectations of school and home performance.
    Your teen’s attention and emotional energy may be focused elsewhere for a few days or weeks.

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Get Your Needs Met: Address Your Own Concerns

  • Get enough sleep, eat balanced meals, try to keep to regular routines.

  • Seek support from other adults.
    This may be a time to reach out to others to give support, to receive support, to discuss issues and reactions. Because you may also be responding to the crisis, it is very important for you to talk to other parents and friends. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

  • Give yourself time to reflect on what has happened.

  • Seek out other adults to process how you are feeling.
    If you need to talk more, express more, discuss more than your children can handle, don’t burden your children with your fears and worries.

  • Identify another caring adult who is able to listen to your children.
    They may need you to be available to help them process what is going on for them, even though you may want to stop talking or thinking about the traumatic event. In this case, identify another caring adult who is available and able to listen to your children about the tragedy, and you can get the break you need.

  • Monitor your conversations.
    Remember that children often overhear adult conversations when parents think they are not listening. Be aware that if your children are nearby, they may hear what you say when you talk with other adults.

We would like to thank Diane Wagenhals of Lakeside Educational Network and the National Parent-Teacher Association for their contributions to this article.

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