Talking To Children About Violent and Shocking Events

Non Muslim Mum and Daughter in solidarity.

Recently, we visited a local mosque, and put scarves on in solidarity. My daughter told the reporter “We are here to be together as one big family group.”

“Together” is the watchword for dealing with news of violence or death. “What can we do together, as a family, to remember those who died, and offer our caring?” is a healing question.

Patty Wipfler, Hand in Hand Parenting




In the last few days, we confronted the news of yet another dreadful act carried out against people who were just going about their daily life.  We face the tragedy and sadness of it: we may have family and friends who are directly affected in large or small ways; our hearts go out to the people directly affected, and the police and emergency services employees who put themselves on the line to deal with the situation, and to the communities who are touched by these events and the backlash which will inevitably follow.

We may worry about how safe we really are, so far away, but similarly vulnerable.   Even if we manage to avoid becoming pre-occupied with events as they unfold, it will in any case play out over weeks on our television screens, radios and newsfeeds.

As adults, we can put these events into a bigger context. We know that people can and will band together to pull through. Our children don’t always have such a big picture and it makes it hard for them to make sense of what they are seeing and hearing.

It is not helpful for very young children to know all the details of a well-publicized crisis. They can’t digest exposure to such human irrationality, senseless violence and suffering.  And they are affected by the way the adults around them are reacting. Often, these reactions can make them feel unsafe.

Here are some ways you can help your children understand these events:

  • If you are affected by the disaster, find an adult to listen to you for a while when the children are not around. Watching a disaster unfold, let alone being directly affected by it, can make us feel scared and concerned. Our children get worried when we get worried.       We will be able to communicate about it in ways that are helpful to our children if we are not ourselves upset, angry or grief stricken. With a good listener, we can release those feelings, and begin to put what has happened into a broader context of how much people care about one another.
  • Shield children from the media. Even seemingly small details can worry a child. TV reports, newspaper photographs, and radio commentary can communicate that adults do not feel safe, in charge, or trustful of others. Exposure to the graphic images in newspapers or on TV, and the interpretations of news people can be frightening. It is easy to underestimate the effects that these images have on children. Get your news after the children have gone to bed, or while you’re commuting in your car.
  • With your children, concentrate on the present moment, on the goodness of being together, and on moving forward in your daily routine, rather than on the details of the disaster.
  • Explain the events in general terms, and in terms that your child can understand. Let them ask the questions, answer as generally as possible and don’t volunteer more information that they are asking for.   Also offer reassurance. For example you could acknowledge that sometimes some people get hurt in ways which leave them angry and not able to think well. They may do things which hurt other people, but lots of people are working to stop them from doing that and to keep people safe.   However, we don’t have all the answers, and sometimes people will get hurt.
  • Focus on the positive, on stories of compassion, concern and co-operation: You can explain that people will learn from what happened, and point also to the co-operation of many thousands of people around the world and the help that has arrived at the scene. There are many positive stories to tell.  I love this quote from red Rogers, a television personality of days gone by, who had a charming children’s program on US TV: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” *
    Give explicit reassurance to children who are exposed to graphic images on TV or to tense, distressed adult talk. Tell them they are safe, that you will keep them safe, and that you are doing what you can to respond to the news they have heard. Your children need as much reassurance as you can give that harm won’t come to them.
  • Expect that your children may show their upsets in odd ways: Children often can’t tell us directly what is wrong, but they will find a series of small things to be upset about – you have served up the wrong food, they want to sit in the car where their brother is sitting, they can’t find their favourite toy. These small upsets are often how children bring up much bigger worries – sometimes worries so big they cannot articulate them, or face them directly. Avoid asking “why” – instead, just listen. You might say “I’m sorry that you can’t find your toy.” And then listen to their upset. Don’t step immediately to fixing the problem. Trust me, it is probably not (much) about the toy.
  • When you have some time, do some Special Time: this is a one-on-one playtime where, for a measured amount of time, you tell a child you will play with them just how they want. Don’t make suggestions, give advice or try to teach. In this time, children will often show us their concerns in what and how they choose to play. Our relaxed enthusiasm for them at these times is a healing balm.
  • Find opportunities to laugh (Playlistening): laughter dissolves fear. Whenever we can put aside our seriousness, put the children in charge, play the fool, the less competent one, and join in (and be the butt of) their jokes, they will laugh. Trust that this laughter will also help to wash away tensions which they, and you, are carrying.

More Info?

  • You can find out more about Fred Rogers HERE.

Helping Children With Their Fears

If your child has experienced a traumatic event, either directly or indirectly, you may find useful information in these articles:

This article, from Hand in Hand Founder Patty Wipfler, is about helping our children through traumatic events – such as illness and other frightening experiences.  It provides a great summary of the nuts and bolts of helping children with fears – relevant even when those traumatic events are happening around them, rather than to them.

And these are some articles about how parents have used the Listening Tools to help children with their fears.  Those fears can come from many different places – even seemingly insignificant events can get lodged in a child’s mind, and often, over time, those fears seem to snowball.  Staylistening, Playlistening and Special Time will make a huge difference, as well as getting time for yourself to be listened to about your fears.

Here is an article which illustrates how images and ideas which, as adults, we think little of, can really affect a child, and how a child’s anxiety can show up as aggressive behaviour. This mother Staylistens to help her child recover from what he has seen:

And another about thee effect of screen images on children, this time showing up in difficulties getting to sleep:

When our children are chronically afraid – they won’t let us leave them, they are unable to get to or stay asleep, they are shy and fearful – we don’t have to keep finding “workarounds”.  This is a lovely story of how a mother first made sure her child felt well connected, then made sure that she (the mother) had the reserves herself, and then decided to bring a limit, and listened to her child’s upset about this, with good results.

This child gets a huge fright when she falls into a pool.  it’s so easy for us adults to get very agitated when we see our children at risk – but this mother keeps her cool, and her child moves through the terror quickly:

Children’s fears will often show up in “off track behaviours” and other difficulties.  Bedwetting is a common challenge, connected with fear.  This articles explains how to respond, and has a great story about using Playlistening (in particular, rough physical play) to help:

If you would like to dive deeper, the Self Paced Online Course – part of the Parent Rescue Series – “Helping Children Sleep” is really great value for money.   While the focus is on sleep issues, you will find a detailed explanation of how to help children with their fears more broadly.    Watch it, and if you need help applying it in your family, feel free to contact me for a One-on-One Consultation.


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