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How to Talk to Kids About Traumatic Events

For children who have seen the images of death and destruction and have heard the heartbreaking stories surrounding Monday’s terrorist attacks in Boston, there may be a lot of confusion and fear. They may wonder if they are safe, if their caregivers are safe and how this will affect their daily lives.

Jeff Magill, Project Coordinator for Emergency Management at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at UPMC, said children’s responses will vary according to their age and the perspective in which they have been exposed.

Distress presents itself differently according to age groups. For young children pre-school to kindergarten age, they may become more withdrawn and may not want to be separated from their parents. 

It may be difficult for them to understand that this is an event that took place on a particular place and time – they might think that when they see or hear media coverage they may think this is an event that is happening over and over again.

And there may also be regression – something they may have been able to accomplish before – they can temporarily no longer do, such as transitioning from diapers to undergarments.

For school-age children there may be a loss of interest in going to school, not enjoying activities they used to enjoy and mood changes.

In teenagers there may be a general preoccupation with the traumatic event, and they may engage in self-destructive behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use.

“As parents and as caregivers, it means there is something different about the child," Magill said. "It doesn’t mean that this child is overly impacted and won't be able to adapt because there is something to be said about resiliency in people, especially our children, but I think that adaption is encouraged through open dialogue with us as caregivers."

Magill said the first thing to do is find out what facts the child knows before providing them with other facts in an age-appropriate manner.

Rita Catalano, Executive Director of The Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media, said it's also a good idea to limit the amount of news media children consume – especially when the images are as graphic as they have been.

“We need to try to shield them from those images," Catalano said. "I think sometimes it's unavoidable. They see them first-hand, or they are in school or in pre-school and their friends are talking about it. The explanation is to acknowledge that these awful things happen, but that again, it's not something that’s happening in their backyard; they are in a safe environment.”

The Center has published a guide to dealing with traumatic events as well as an episode Fred Rogers made following the Robert Kennedy assassination to help children deal with sad public events. Catalano said she would offer the same advice Fred Rogers offers: telling children that they are safe and that adults need to be the helpers.

Catalano added it’s important to reassure children between traumatic events.

“If children always feel safe and they always feel secure and they always feel there is someone they can talk to in an open way so they can let you know what their feelings are, perhaps when these terrible things happen, they go to you as a helper,” she said.

Erika Beras (she/her) is a reporter and host for NPR's Planet Money podcast.
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