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Published on May 31, 2022

Talking to kids about traumatic events

kids trauma

After every school shooting, parents and educators grapple with what to tell kids. Everyone wants children to be safe and feel secure, but it’s also important to consider a child’s age before getting into these conversations because there’s a chance they will just make a child needlessly afraid.

Adolescent psychiatrist Bart Main, MD at the Centers for Behavioral Health of Cape Cod Healthcare finds it extremely sad that young children between the ages of 5 and 8 even have to hear about tragedies like school shootings.

“Children at that age really have to have a fantasy, an expectation, that the world is a benign place in order for them to have a courageous attitude,” he said. 

Because of that, Dr. Main does not believe that elementary schools should be doing “shooter drills” to prepare students for a shooting at their own school.

“I think that is a wrong move that just further traumatizes the kids,” he said. “It’s really better to make sure the adults in the building are making sure the building is safe and not burdening the kids with it.”

Dr. Main compared it to the air raid drills during the Cuban Missile Crisis of his youth. The idea was that students hid under desks to protect themselves from glass shattering in the event of a bombing. Even as a kid, he quickly realized that the sort of bombing they were talking about was a nuclear bomb and hiding under his desk wasn’t going to protect him at all.

He said that rather than protect him, it actually terrified him that the whole world would be killed. And in hindsight, not one school in the United States was ever bombed during that time period, so the drills needlessly frightened a whole generation of children.

For that same reason, it is also very important to turn the TV off, Dr. Main said. Children should never be exposed to images of violence on the news, he said.

“Visual images are much more traumatizing to us than reading it in print,” Dr. Main said. “So, it’s really important for little kids to not be allowed to watch the news where that kind of stuff is going to happen. The image of a mother crying and being held while sobbing is going to evoke emotions in us far beyond just the knowledge that something tragic happened. It gives us PTSD.”

What to Say if Your Child Asks

Unfortunately, life isn’t perfect and younger children do hear about tragedies like the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. They may hear about it from classmates or older siblings. In that case it’s important to find out what they have heard and how they feel about it, Dr. Main said.

Children’s questions and worries can be very different from adults’ questions and worries, so the first step is to find out what they know and what their concerns are. For example, a child might ask, “Does this mean we have to stay away from Texas?” Dr. Main said. Another child might worry that the shooter looks like someone at their school and worry it’s the shooter’s brother.

“Little kids have all kinds of wacky notions and unless we ask them about it, we don’t know what they are thinking,” he said. “Ask them what questions they have and what they would like to say about it. Let them take the initiative and let them know that you are open to hearing about it. You’re curious what is going on in their mind.”

The most important thing parents and caregivers can do is assure kids that they are safe.

“What we want to say to them is ‘this is a very rare event,’” Dr. Main said. “’The likelihood of this happening in your school is very, very low.’ But the trouble is that children at that age don’t understand statistics and probability.”

One concrete way of explaining probability to kids is to take several decks of cards and remove all of the queens of spades except one. Then scatter the cards all over the table and have the child pick a card. After each pick scatter the cards again and see how many cards they need to actually to pick to get the queen of spades.

Despite all reassurances, some children will still be frightened. If they say they are scared, validate their feelings by saying that ‘yes, it is very scary.’ But then reiterate that it is not likely to happen at their school, Dr. Main said. Another good idea is to point out safety measures at the school, like the presence of school resource officers who are policemen. Most schools also have all the entrances locked except one carefully monitored one.

For example, all Monomoy schools have locked doors and people can only enter the building by way of a video buzzer system. This system allows the front office staff to see and verbally question an individual before granting (or denying) them entry into the school's vestibule.

One last important piece of advice that Dr. Main offered is to let the child lead the conversation. Sometimes parents tell kids more than they are ready to hear.

“I think there is a difference between being open to the conversation and listening for opportunities versus forcing it on kids,” he said. “It’s like the sex talk. You have to have that talk but you are alert for the right opportunity. But if you bring it up to your 8-year-old and they say ‘ew,’ you don’t push it.”

Tune in Saturday, June 4 or Sunday, June 5, 2022 at the below times to hear Dr. Bart Main talk more about this pressing topic on Spectrum, an iHeart radio show hosted by Leo Cakounes:

  • COOL 102 - 6:00 a.m.
  • 106 WCOD - 6:30 a.m.
  • CAPE COD'S SPORTS RADIO 96.3 - 6:30 a.m.
  • 95 WXTK - 6:30 a.m.