Talking with children about traumatic events can be challenging. Whether it’s addressing concerns about images of war, natural disasters, or community violence, it can be difficult to know where to start. In an early learning environment, children’s access to graphic news reports should be quite limited, but it is hard to tell just how much children are absorbing from listening to adults or seeing images in the media.
Experts suggest that adults pay close attention to children in the aftermath of traumatic events, regardless of how little the event seems to directly impact them. In other words, adults should not assume that children are okay just because the traumatic event occurred in another state or country.
When children see traumatic images in the media, they may not understand that the event occurred hundreds or thousands of miles away. They see people crying, damage to buildings, and emergency responders, which can result in feelings of fear and anxiety. If they do understand that the event happened in a different part of the country or world, they may still be worried that a similar event could happen to them or their community.
It may seem appropriate to simply reassure children that the scary images they are seeing happened somewhere else and that they have nothing to worry about, but experts encourage adults to take additional steps to help children process their feelings.
Reassuring the child that they are safe is definitely important – and for some children, it is all they need to hear. Other children may have deeper concerns, misunderstandings, or questions about the traumatic event. Signs that a child may be experiencing fear or anxiety about traumatic events include:
- Trouble sleeping or nightmares
- Appetite changes
- Behavior changes
- Reenacting the event repeatedly
- Irritability or anger
- Regression of skills such as thumb-sucking, bedwetting, or soiling their clothing
- Withdrawal from others
Teachers should watch for these signs and listen closely to conversations children are having. It may not be necessary to have a whole-group discussion about the event. Instead, focus on individual children and their unique concerns.
When working with individual children, ask open-ended questions to determine what the child understands about the event. Acknowledge the child’s questions or concerns by demonstrating empathy – even if their concerns are not warranted. For example:
- I get it – seeing images on television makes me feel upset, too.
- Sometimes watching the news can feel scary, and that is normal. Here’s what’s important to understand about the event…
- I understand that you feel worried about the images you saw.
Share the reality of the situation with the child using language that matches their level of understanding. Help them see the measures that are in place to help keep them safe. You don’t have to share more information than necessary to help reassure the child they are safe. Here are some examples:
- You are right, that person hurt other people, but it is over and they stopped the person from hurting anyone else.
- I know tornados are scary because they happen without much warning. That is why we practice our tornado drills often so that we know what to do when we hear the alarm.
- Right now, that war is happening here on the globe. Can you see how far away that is from where we live? Yes, it’s very far away and you and your family are safe here.
As a way to build children’s resilience, you can offer some of the following opportunities:
- Teach self-calming strategies, such as deep breathing or guided visualizations.
- Encourage children to draw pictures or write stories about their feelings.
- Reassure children that they can talk to you anytime they need to.
- Maintain a consistent routine that children can depend on.
- Read books that help children build emotional literacy.
- Look for ways to help by donating clothes, food, or funds to verified charities.
Below you will find a number of resources that provide more details about talking to children about traumatic events. Be sure to share with families.
- Helping Children Cope After a Traumatic Event – Child Mind Institute
- Nine Tips for Talking with Kids about Trauma – The Greater Good Science Center At the University of California, Berkeley
- Talking with Children about Tragedies and Other News Events – American Academy of Pediatrics
- Talking to Kids about Traumatic Events with Tips and Videos – Child Care Resource Center: Strengthening Families
- Supporting Young Children after Crisis Events – National Association for the Education of Young Children
Consider taking a few of these CCEI courses to help you develop your confidence in working with children who have experienced trauma: