Talking to Kids Following Traumatic Events

Dec 17, 2012

Friday’s deadly school shooting in Connecticut left many parents and children nervous heading into schools across the country Monday. It also left many parents wondering how to talk to their children about what happened. Dr. Anthony Mannarino is co-founder of Allegheny General Hospital’s Center for Traumatic Stress in Children. He said when children ask hard questions, answers should be age-appropriate.

“For kids who are six, seven years of age and under, of course we want to let them know that other children died and it was a horrible event, but I think we certainly want to spare young children, and for that matter older children, details of how these children died and that kind of thing.”

But, Mannarino said parents should have frank discussions with teenagers about what happened. For smaller kids, it’s important for parents to validate their child’s fears, letting them know that it was, indeed, a scary event.

“With that said, despite what happened on Friday and despite the number of incidents of this type that have occurred around the country, these events are still quite rare in schools and therefore I think parents, for the most part, can reassure their children that their schools are safe,” said Mannarino.

Meeting them on their own level

He added, children have less sophisticated verbal skills and may not be able to talk about what happened, but they can express themselves in other ways – such as through play materials or drawings.

“Parents and teachers and others probably need to take the lead in helping kids talk about this,” said Mannarino, “what happened on Friday was so disturbing and so scary that many children may have a tendency to keep it inside themselves, so we as adults are going to need to work with them to encourage kids to talk about it.”

The good news, added Mannarino, is kids are quite resilient. For those more closely affected by the tragedy, he said they will likely be able to fully recover, though they may experience short-term effects such as stress, anxiety, and trouble sleeping.

“Many children, even without mental health care, recover on their own with the help of their family and their own coping, but many children don’t recover on their own and will need help because they develop what we call symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is very similar to what our soldiers experience from when they return from overseas.”

In addition to talking to your children, Mannarino suggests trying to limit media, particularly TV exposure of the shooting to young children. Mannarino appeared on Monday’s Essential Pittsburgh.