Laureate Physician Shares Guidance on Talking to Kids about Traumatic Events
Dr. Scott Moseman, M.D., CDES, attending physician at Laureate Psychiatric Clinic and Hospital, answered reporters’ questions about talking to kids about traumatic events like the mass school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, yesterday.
Dr. Moseman encouraged parents to allow children to take the lead in discussions. “Meet them where they’re at,” he said. “Don’t have an agenda. Set the environment as a safe space to talk.”
If children have not brought up the event, parents might gently broach the subject.
“There’s no right or wrong way to talk about it,” Moseman said. The reality is that by the time children are in elementary school, teachers and administrators have likely discussed and practiced school safety with the students. It’s important for children to hear about it at home, too.
Parents might start by simply asking their kids if they heard about what happened in Uvalde. Older kids most likely have heard about it or have seen things on social media, while young children may not know anything.
Dr. Moseman said he may ask his children if they’ve heard about it, and then ask if they have any questions. Teens might want to talk about policy, while children younger than age 7 probably don’t really understand death or what happened.
Parents should also understand that emotions are normal parts of human experience. “Keep things honest and real,” Dr. Moseman said. “It’s not bad to show your emotions. It’s ok for your kids to see that you have emotions about this. It’s about balance.”
However, if you have anxiety, or if you have an anxious child, be aware of it, and get help if your anxiety of your child’s anxiety becomes overwhelming.
Watching too much news about traumatic situations is not good for children. If parents notice their child watching repetitive news, or if they want to watch news too much, it might be a sign to check in with them. Additionally, if children stop doing “normal kid things,” or start complaining of headaches, stomachaches or other physical problems for more than a day or two, Dr. Moseman suggests talking to their pediatrician or seeking other professional help.
If children don’t want to go to school, Dr. Moseman one day off is probably not concerning. Talk about it. But a pattern of school avoidance is not a good thing because children might think that school is not safe. “One day (missed) might be ok, but if it doesn’t resolve in a day or two, seek a professional to help them with it,” he said.
Dr. Moseman offers some additional advice to parents. “Suicide, bombs, drugs…it’s not uncommon for there to be copycats of traumatic events,” he said. “Keep things open and continue to talk to kids. Kids are listening and this does impact them.”
If children are asking if there is something they can do, take the opportunity to help them find ways to do so. Depending on their age, they can fundraise, become politically active, write cards to families who lost loved ones or, if they’re older, they can write to senators. These actions help children learn empathy.
During times of stress and trauma, it’s especially important for families to slow down and be together.
“We get busy with the day-in, day-out things in life,” Dr. Moseman said. “Take out time to talk with your kids, take them out for a hike, fishing, spend time with them. Take a break and be together as a family.”
The National Assn. of School Psychologists has guidelines for explaining violent events to children of different ages. It’s important, the experts say, to use age-appropriate language, and to answer questions without adding to confusion. From the NASP tip sheet:
- “Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them.”
- “Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.”
- “Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society…. Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines … communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.