A Parent and Teacher's Guide for Talking to Children About Disasters and Crisis

A mother and young daughter are holding hands as they talk sitting on a couch together

After any unexpected disaster or crisis, families struggle with what they should say to children and how to help them cope. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages parents, teachers, childcare providers, and others who work closely with children to filter information about the event and present it in a way that their child can understand, adjust to, and handle in a healthy way. This blog entry explains helpful tips on how to filter information and talk to children of all ages and cognitive abilities about tragic events.

Avoiding graphic details & exposure to media.

In general, it is best to share basic information with children, not graphic details, or unnecessary details about tragic circumstances. Children and adults alike want to be able to understand enough so they know what's going on. Graphic information and images should be avoided.

Keep young children away from repetitive graphic images and sounds that may appear on television, radio, social media, the internet, etc. With older children, if they will be viewing news coverage, consider recording it ahead of time. That allows you to preview it and evaluate its contents before you sit down with them to watch it. Then, as you watch it with them, you can stop, pause, and have a discussion when you need to.

Children will generally follow good advice, but you must give them some latitude to make decisions about what they're ready for. Most children will have access to the news and graphic images through social media and the internet right from their cell phones. You need to be aware of what's out there and take steps in advance to talk to children about what they might hear or see.

How to talk to very young children

The reality is that even preschool-age children will hear about major events. It's best that they hear about it from a parent or caregiver, as opposed to another child, in the media, or through overheard conversations.

Reassure young children that they’re safe. Provide extra comfort and contact by discussing the child’s fears at night, telephoning during the day, and providing extra physical comfort. Get a better understanding of a child’s feelings about the tragedy. Discuss the events with them and find out their fears and concerns. Answer all questions they may ask and provide them with loving comfort and care. Structure children’s play so that it remains constructive, serving as an outlet for them to express fear or anger.

Even the youngest child needs accurate information, to help them understand why tragic events are so different from people getting hurt every day. Simply saying, "An unwell person was in a town about a [duration of time] from here and hurt people.” is enough to start the conversation. The underlying message for a parent to convey is, "This isn’t a normal event that happens every day, It’s okay if these things bother you. We are here to support each other."

How to talk to grade school children and teens

After asking your child what they have heard and if they have questions or concerns about what occurred during a school shooting, community bombing, natural disaster, or even a disaster in another country, a parent can say something such as:  "Yes. In [city], [state]"(and here you might need to give some context, depending on whether it's nearby or far away, for example, 'That's a city/state that's pretty far from/close to here'), there was a crisis [explain what the crisis was]and many people were hurt [add more information]. The police and the government are doing their jobs so they can try to make sure that it doesn't happen again." You can follow up as needed based on your child's reactions and questions.

How to talk with children with developmental delays or disabilities

Parents who have a child with a developmental delay or disability should gear their responses to their child's developmental level or abilities, rather than their chronological age. If you have a teenage child whose level of intellectual functioning is more like a 7-year-old, for instance, gear your response to what you might share with most 7-year-olds. Start by giving less information. Provide further information in the most appropriate and clear way you can.

Talking with children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

What's helpful to a child with an ASD may be different. For instance, the child may find less comfort in cuddling than some other children. Parents should try something else that has calmed and comforted their child on other occasions. Ask yourself, "Given who my child is, their personality, temperament, and developmental abilities what generally helps calm them when they are worried. What might work for them?"

Warning signs a child might not be coping well.

You may see signs that children are having difficulty adjusting. Some of the things to look for are:

Sleep problems:

Watch for trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, difficulty waking, nightmares, or other sleep disturbances.

Physical complaints:

Children may complain of feeling tired, having a headache or stomachache, or generally feeling unwell.

Changes in behavior:

You may notice your child eating too much or less than usual. Look for signs of regressive behavior, including social regression, acting more immature, or becoming less patient and more demanding or irritable. A child who once separated easily from their parents may become clingy. Teens may begin or change current patterns of tobacco, alcohol, or substance use.

Emotional problems:

Children may experience excessive sadness, depression, anxiety, or fears.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if a child is reacting in a typical way to an unusual event or whether they are having significant problems coping and might benefit from extra support. If you are concerned, talk to your child's pediatrician, your child's teacher, or a mental health professional.

Don't wait for symptoms to get better or worse. Children often do a good job of hiding their distress. Start the discussion early and keep the dialogue going.

For more tips on how to cope after unexpected tragedies, read our blog entry "Supporting Children and Ourselves Through Unexpected Tragedies: A Guide to Coping and Helping".

Other Helpful Resources

National Child Traumatic Stress Network https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/terrorism-and-violence

Talking to Children About Terrorist Attacks and Community Shootings https://www.schoolcrisiscenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Guidelines-Talking-to-Kids-About-Attacks-Two-Sided-Onesheet-Format.pdf

Tips for Educators https://www.nctsn.org/resources/helping-youth-after-community-trauma-tips-educators

Helpful Children's Books

A Terrible Thing Happened: A Story for Children Who Have Witnessed Violence or Trauma by Margaret M. Holmes (Preschool to 3rd Grade)

Once I Was Very Very Scared by Chandra Ghosh Ippen (Preschool to 2nd Grade)

I'm Not Scared...I'm Prepared!: A Picture Book to Help Kids Navigate School Safety Threats by Julia Cook (Kindergarten to 6th grade)

Wilma Jean the Worry Machine: A Picture Book About Worry and Anxiety by Julia Cook (Grade 2nd to 5th)

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