Talking with your child about difficult events

young boy and dad talking

Once again, we're faced with having to make sense of recent mass shooting involving innocent people. 

For children and teens, it can be difficult witnessing confusing and frightening images of events as they often unfold in real-time. While we do our best to shelter children and teens from traumatic events, they have a great deal of access to information and see and hear what we may not want them to. They pick up on the emotional experiences of their parents and caregivers and form their own understanding of events, whether or not we discuss them. Young people can get very creative about “worst-case scenarios,” and their conclusions can be inaccurate, negative and often scary. This is why it is so important to create a space for children to name and discuss their fears or thoughts and to engage in open dialogue and positive, problem-focused ways of coping.

Here are a few practical steps to start conversations with school-age children (7-13 years old):

  1. Make sure that you are emotionally ready to talk with them. Take a few minutes before speaking together to reflect on your own emotional experience. Are you feeling too frightened or overwhelmed to have a calm conversation? If so, it might be best to spend some time coming to terms with your own experience first. Sometimes even adults aren’t sure how they feel about an event, and it is okay to let children know that. Language like, “Some of this stuff is pretty scary, and I’m not sure how I feel yet either. It helps me to talk about it and ask questions so that I can learn more” can be helpful. Using calm language to reassure your child and using words your child understands, such as “upset,” “scared,” “sad,” “worried,” or “confused,” helps them share their feelings. Speaking openly and calmly like this gives your child words to label their own emotional uncertainty and provides examples of some steps to help them cope. 
  2. Make sure you have the time for a full conversation. Choose a time when there won’t be interruptions, or when the conversation may need to end abruptly. Depending upon the ages of your children, it might be good to have one conversation with the older ones and one conversation with younger ones to make sure that information is presented appropriately for each child’s developmental level. For children under eight, use facts and concrete language as much as possible. 
  3. Start by asking your child open-ended questions about what they have already seen or heard. Good conversation starters include, “What questions do you have about what we just heard on the news?” or “What emotions are you feeling now?” or “What things are you thinking about this?” Try to answer your child’s questions as calmly and directly as you can. If you don’t know the answer, it’s okay to tell your child that. Language like, “That’s a great question, I’m not sure, but I’ll see what I can find out” can validate the question and model appropriate ways to seek information. 
  4. Try to highlight the positive about what is going on and end on a reassuring note. Remind your child that there are many people in the world looking out for them and that there are people working to keep everyone safe. You can also try to find the “helpers” in a situation or story and practice highlighting who these people are in day-to-day stressful events to help your child build this skill.

If you’re speaking with teens, consider consuming some news media together and processing it with them. This can help teens learn about how to be informed, critically evaluate sources and process their emotional experiences. A conversation like this will probably come with more complex questions or more intense emotions, so do your best to keep modeling a calm, open dialogue.

Many of us come into these stressful events with our own life experiences and possibly past trauma that can make it incredibly challenging for us to have a calm, thoughtful conversation. Labeling this for children and teens in a developmentally appropriate way can help create an emotionally rich learning experience. “This is hard for me to talk about because I feel frustrated. How do you feel while we’re talking about this?” is a great way to keep teaching children by modeling, even when we’re struggling. If it gets to be too much, it’s also okay to say, “You know, I need a break because I need to think through this a little more, and it’s making me very emotional. Could we try talking again after dinner?”

Children and teens show their distress in different ways from adults, often through anger or irritability, tantrums, refusals, loss of appetite or difficulty sleeping. If you feel your child or teen is showing any of these signs, a loss of interest in their usual hobbies, or seems much more attached to you more than usual, there may be something bigger going on. Always check in with your child or teen’s pediatrician if you’re worried about their mental health. It’s also a great way to show that it is okay to talk about mental health and can help remind your child or teen that there are many adults in their lives who care.

Ellen K. Sejkora, PhD, works in psychiatry at Dartmouth Health Children's, and is an assistant professor of Psychiatry at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.