Talking to Your Kids About Trauma


How to discuss the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary with your child

I can't possibly begin to express my horror and heartbreak as I watched the events in Connecticut unfold on Friday. As a former teacher, all I could feel was terror; terror that again the grounds of our schools have become a battlefield. As a therapist, I was deeply saddened as I thought of how the traumatic nature of these events would affect the children and families involved both now and in the future. As a parent, I felt an overwhelming sense of paranoia.  The halls of my child's school are a safe haven, a place for him to safely develop and grow while we are not together. My parenting world became a far more dangerous place.  As I reflect on this tragedy and what may come next for these families, I'd like to share some thoughts on how to help your children come to terms with this awful story:
  • Remember that small children may have difficulty understanding the difference between other traumatic events and things that may happen to them. Try to avoid exposing them to the news, TV and radio as they discuss this. Kids are prone to jump to conclusions about their own safety when hearing of such trauma.  Also, conversations about the larger issues behind this kind of trauma (gun control, mental illness) are best discussed with other adults away from younger children. 
  • Reassure your children that they are safe and discuss the adults around them that help them feel secure.  
  • Your demeanor and reaction as a parent greatly determines the reality that your child will construct around trauma.  Try to make sure you keep a cool head when you talk to them about scary things. They are looking to you to try and understand how to react. 
  • Listen to your kids first. Show them that you're hearing them before you talk "at" them. Your attention and concern for what they're saying will feel safe and reassuring. Give them a chance to ask their own questions and validate how they're feeling without telling them how to feel. 
It's not easy to talk to our kids about such extreme events, especially when other children are involved.  I hope that these suggestions are helpful in dealing with the feelings that are part of the complex process of understanding trauma, and I truly hope we'll need to have fewer questions like these to answer in the future.  My heart goes out to the families and teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary School, and I wish them hope and perseverance as they work to rebuild their lives. 
If you'd like to know more about how traumatic events affect children, here are some resources I've found helpful:
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has a number of resources for children, parents and professionals to help families heal after trauma.
The Medical University of South Carolina has an online resource with a lot of information about helping kids who have experienced trauma.

This article from PsychCentral does a great job of pointing out some of the more serious symptoms of trauma in children as well as some ways to care for kids who've experienced trauma.  

Alicia Lieberman is one of the founders of the Child Trauma Research Program here in San Francisco. I can enthusiastically recommend anything she's written on this subject.
George Kolcun, MFT has been trained in helping kids and families recover from trauma involving domestic violence, community violence, physical and sexual abuse and other traumatic experiences.  Contact him at or follow him on Twitter @GeorgeMFT. He lives and works in San Francisco.