Safety & Security (Prepare and Be Aware)

10 Tips for Talking to Children About Natural Disasters and School Shootings

The effects of trauma in children may linger and manifest themselves physically and behaviorally. Will Isemann, president and CEO of KidsPeace, a private charity dedicated to serving the behavioral and mental health needs of children, preadolescents and teens, and the clinical experts at the organization have compiled a list of tips to help parents talk to their children about what happened and look out for future signs of distress.

1. Listen to children. Allow them to express their concerns and fears.

2. Regardless of age, the most important issue is to reassure children of safety and security. Tell children that you, their school, their friends and their communities are all focused on their safety and that those around them are working for their safety. Have discussions about those dedicated to protecting them like police, teachers and other school officials, neighbors and all concerned adults throughout the community.

3. When discussing the events with younger children, the amount of information shared should be limited to some basic facts. Use words meaningful to them (not words like Tsunami or sniper, etc.). Share with them that weather or geological shifting have caused a specific disastrous event in a certain part of the world or some bad people have used violence to hurt innocent people in the area. Discuss that we don’t know exactly why this happened, but a natural disaster or violence has occurred. Do not go into specific details.

4. School-aged children will ask, “Can this happen here, or to me?” Do not lie to children. Share that it is unlikely that anything like this will happen to them or in their community. Then reiterate how the community is focused on working to keep everyone safe.

5. Parents, caregivers and teachers should be cautious of permitting young children to watch news or listen to radio that is discussing or showing carnage. It is too difficult for most of them to process. Personal discussions are the best way to share information with this group. Also, plan to discuss this many times over the coming weeks.

6. When discussing the events with preteens and teens, more detail is appropriate and many will already have seen news broadcasts. Do not let them focus too much on graphic details. Rather, elicit their feelings and concerns and focus your discussions on what they share with you. Be careful of how much media they are exposed to. Talk directly with them about the tragedy and answer their questions truthfully.

7. Although this group is more mature, do not forget to reassure them of their safety and your efforts to protect them. Regardless of age, kids must hear this message.

8. Be on the lookout for physical symptoms of anxiety that children may demonstrate. They may be a sign that a child, although not directly discussing the tragedy, is very troubled by the recent events. Talk more directly to children who exhibit these signs:

  • Headaches
  • Excessive worry
  • Stomach aches
  • Increased arguing
  • Back aches
  • Irritability
  • Trouble sleeping or eating
  • Loss of concentration
  • Nightmares
  • Withdrawal
  • Refusal to go to school
  • Clinging behavior

9. Parents and caregivers should often reassure children that they will be protected and kept safe. During tragedies like these, words expressing safety and reassurance with concrete plans should be discussed and agreed upon within the family and can provide the most comfort to children and teens.

10. If you are concerned about your children and their reaction to this or any tragedy, talk directly with their school counselor, family doctor, local mental health professional or have your older children visit KidsPeace’s teen help website, www.TeenCentral.Net.

This information is reprinted with permission from the KidsPeace website. For more information, visit www.kidspeace.org.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

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