First Mondays

By The Institute for Child Development and Family Relations, Cal State San Bernardino

Talking to Children About Traumatic Events

on May 1, 2017

Recently the Institute for Child Development and Family Relations at Cal State University, San Bernardino experienced a lock down due to a shooting incident at a nearby elementary school. We soon learned that four individuals had been shot at the school including a teacher, two students and the gunman. Although we would like to believe that this is an isolated event, it is becoming clear that violence in our work places and schools is increasing. With the growth in frequency comes amplified news and media coverage. We are almost constantly bombarded with images of violence. Our children are also exposed to these events, if not directly then through television, social media, listening to family or other grownups, or talking with friends.

How do parents, teachers, family members or other concerned adults talk with the children in our lives when a traumatic event occurs? We reached out to child development expert Dr. Laura Kamptner for some suggestions. Dr. Kamptner is a Professor at CSUSB in the Department of Psychology and Human Development. She had several recommendations including:

  • Keep children away from television news coverage or other overly sensationalized news sources.
  • Ask the child what they have already heard about the event and what they think happened. This will help you to see if the child has any misconceptions or has acquired misinformation about the incident. After a tragedy, false information that sensationalizes the event is often spread.
  • Use language that matches a child’s age/developmental level. As an example, Dr. Kamptner suggested that for elementary children who experienced or heard about the recent shooting saying something like “A man was very angry at a woman he knew and wanted to hurt her. Some people cannot control their behavior or how angry they get, and this makes them unsafe to be around. The children at the school were taken out of the school because the teachers didn’t want them to get hurt too. Then the parents came and took their kids home.”
  • Children may ask further questions. If they do, answer them simply and honestly but without gory details. When answering, try to emphasize how you and the teachers at the school are going to keep them safe.

Dr. Stacy Forcino, an incoming Assistant Professor of Psychology at CSUSB, suggested to normalize and validate the child’s feelings. You can say something such as “I understand that you are nervous about going to school. I bet some of your classmates are too. It’s normal to feel worried after hearing news like this.” Remember to remind them that these types of events are very unusual. School is a very safe place to be. You can also talk about the procedures in place at school and home that help keep them safe.

She also recommends expressing your own emotions in a controlled way and model positive coping and open communication. For example, if your child talks about feeling sad, you might say “I feel sad about that too. When I feel sad, I talk to my family and friends about what’s making me feel that way. That usually helps me feel much better. I’m glad that you are talking to me now.”

Dr. Forcino encourages concerned adults to look for warning signs that a child is having a particularly difficult time coping with their feelings about the incident. Changes or problems with sleep, loss of interest in activities, changes or problems in eating or appetite, nightmares, persistent worry, resistance going to school, headaches or stomachaches, irritability, behavior problems, and/or difficulty concentrating could be cause for concern. If you do have concerns about a child, talk to your pediatrician or a mental health professional.

You can find more information online at The National Child Traumatic Stress Network at www.NCTSN.org.

About Our Contributors:

 

  • Dr. Stacy Forcino is a licensed clinical psychologist and adjunct instructor in the Psychology Department at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB). She is a clinical supervisor in CSUSB’s Community Counseling Center ((http://ccc.csusb.edu/contactUs/index.htm), where she and her students treat children and adolescents with behavioral and emotional problems.   
  • Dr. Laura Kamptner is a Professor of Human Development in the Psychology Department at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB). She teaches courses on child and human development, parenting, and the history of childhood. She is also involved with the Institute for Child Development and Family Relations at CSUSB, with the Parenting Center and Science of Parenting Projects.
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