Talking About a Tragedy with Your Kids

Dr. Sunny Im-Wang, Psy.D., S.S.P.

parent comforting child

This past week’s tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School shook our nation. The senseless shooting of twenty first-graders and six teachers is the stuff of every parent’s nightmares. The event triggered a wide range of emotional responses among adults all over the nation. We were angry. We were shocked. We reacted with grief, and everybody seemed to want to do something, but no one quite agrees on what to do. In all of this emotional outpouring, it’s easy to let our own feelings overwhelm us, and we may miss the impact this tragedy has had on our own children. Most parents probably found themselves unprepared for the effect that the events unfolding on television from Sandy Hook would have on our own little ones.

First Things First: Be Strong for Your Child

If you are a parent, your first duty is, of course, to protect and comfort your child. You cannot do this effectively, however, if you ignore and do not address your own emotional reaction. If you find yourself upset, anxious, and having difficulty managing your own emotions, find a way to process what you’re feeling, and do it outside the view of your children. Remember to take care of yourself!  Find a friend or family member to talk to or get professional help. Children are perceptive little creatures. They take their cues from you. They are keen observers, and if something is wrong with you, they will know it. They may not fully understand it, but if you’re upset, they will pick up on the fact that something is wrong.

Be a Role Model

Once you’ve managed your own emotions, you can help your kids manage theirs. If you exude calm, your children will feel more secure, knowing their parent is in control and that they are safe. If you can’t get control, get help before you try to answer questions or comfort your children. Cut off the television, radio, and other news sources until you’re emotionally stable. You may not be able to call a therapist, but you can step into the back room and do some breathing exercises to help you relax your body then your mind. Remember and note that, you can help manage your emotions by first relaxing your body.

Triage: Identifying Signs of Trauma in Children

Triage is a technique used by emergency personnel and first responders to identify who needs attention the most. Watch your children in the wake of a traumatic event like this one for evidence that one or more of them aren’t handling things well. It isn’t unusual for very young children to display symptoms of acute distress when the adult world is suddenly knocked out of kilter. This is especially true when something as brutal as the Sandy Hook attack happens in a school or someplace where a child would expect to be safe. Here are some symptoms you might see in the hours and days after a traumatic event:

  • Has separation anxiety – Your child may cling to you or your spouse and cry or whine if one of you leaves his or her sight.
  • Acts out the event – A child may play out the event obsessively with toys or with role-play, especially by acting out the role of the shooter.
  • Becomes aggressive – A child may increase aggressive behavior in response to fear. By becoming the thing that he or she is afraid of, the child can suppress his or her own fear.
  • Becomes easily frustrated – It’s not uncommon for a frightened child to exhibit rage, frustration, or anger as a way of reasserting control when he or she feels that control has been lost because of the trauma. Anger feels better than fear, so the child uses it to cover the fear he or she quite naturally feels.
  • Withdraws – Some children retreat when faced with a traumatic event that frightens them or rocks their sense of security. A child may hide in his or her room or closet with a stuffed animal or favorite toy.
  • Sleeping or eating patterns change – Nightmares may disturb children’s sleep for weeks after the traumatic event. They may lose their appetite or may stress eat, craving candy or other favorite foods. They may suddenly exhibit old emotional problems like bedwetting, an inability to sleep, or thumb-sucking.
  • Becomes resistant – Children may fasten on the idea that those whom they once trusted to keep them safe can no longer do so. It can be hard to comfort children in these circumstances because they may somehow blame all caregivers for the inability of some to protect children like him or her.

Most of the time, such reactions, which are fairly common, are only temporary. They usually decrease gradually over time. If, however, your child develops behaviors like the ones listed above, so much so that the behaviors interfere with his or her quality of life, it’s time to seek professional counseling. Don’t let a natural reaction become a long-term trauma response.

Reassure the Child

It won’t be easy to talk to your child about tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook. There are no easy answers to the inevitable “Why?” What your child is likely looking for when he or she asks “Why?” is reassurance. Here are some talking points for answering this important question:

  1. Try to understand what your child is really saying. Reflecting your child’s question back can help him or her restate it more clearly so you can answer the real question he or she is asking.
  2. Reassure your child that something like this is very rare and is extremely unlikely to happen to him or her. Kids are highly egocentric, so it is likely that your child wants to know if something like this could happen to him or her.
  3. Talk about how the police will investigate this crime to find out what happened. Explain that the police will try to find out why it happened and that they and other grownups in the community will do everything they can to prevent this from happening in the future. Emphasize that we learn from terrible things that happen so we can prevent them from happening again.
  4. Point out that adults work very hard to prevent these things from happening and to make the world a safer place for children.
  5. Create a plan, with your child’s help, for making your home safer. You can have your child help you check smoke detectors and door locks as well as rehearsing passwords and safety procedures that will help make your home a safer, more secure place. Doing this helps your child win back a sense of security in his or her own home.
  6. Spend extra time with your child. Comfort your child. Let him or her know that it’s okay to have feelings about events like those that happened in Connecticut. Ignoring those feelings won’t make them go away. Have your child name the feelings he or she is having—sadness, anger, fear, and so on. Naming the emotions sometimes helps neutralize them.
  7. Turn down the intensity of the traumatic event by switching off the news and putting away the newspapers. Don’t talk about it in front of your kids unless they bring it up. Get back to the regular family routine as soon as possible to allow time for the impact of the traumatic event to wear off.
  8. Find ways for your child to process his or her feelings through activities. Drawing, storytelling, or role-play can help. You might even create some sort of ritual to signify an end point to the trauma. Attending a memorial, releasing butterflies, attending a religious service, and planting a memorial tree are all ways to punctuate the experience. An activity can give your child something tangible that expresses his or her sorrow for and solidarity with the children of Sandy Hook.


Find some time to take care of your own traumatized feelings. If you have a first-grader, you may find that the tragedy hits you harder than someone whose children are grown. Recognize that and seek help if you find your life disrupted by your reaction to the event. Prayer, spending time with a friend who is a good listener, or going out to a favorite restaurant or movie can all serve as pressure-release valves that help you stay strong for your kids and keep things in perspective.

Remember, together we are stronger.


Copyright © 2012 Sunny Im-Wang, Psy.D.


The Child Mind Institute: Connecticut School Shooting – How to Help Children Cope With Frightening News by Harold S. Koplewicz, MD, President, Child Mind Institute

Psychology Today: Helping Kids Cope with Traumatic Events by Barbara Markway, PhD, and Greg Markway, PhD

American Psychological Association: Helping Your Children Manage Distress in the Aftermath of a Shooting by Ronald S. Palomares, PhD, and Lynn F. Bufka, PhD