Children's Hospital Colorado

How to Help Children After a Traumatic Event

Mass shootings. Climate change. Natural disasters. Civil unrest. Piled onto an ongoing pandemic and, for some, private stresses such as deaths or illnesses in the family, it’s a lot to take in.

Multiple traumatic events are increasingly part of life. And for better or worse, it’s up to parents to field kids’ questions — and deal with their feelings — about them. In fact, according to Children’s Hospital Colorado child psychiatrist Marissa Nunes-Moreno, PhD, that’s the most important part.

“A lot of parents have this desire to protect kids or shield them from traumatic events by brushing them under the rug or not addressing them head-on,” she says. “But kids hear things, and they’re going to have thoughts and feelings about what they hear. They need space to talk about that.”

One of the best ways to start that conversation, says Dr. Nunes-Moreno, is just to ask what they’ve heard.

“What are people saying at school? What are your friends talking about? Test the waters and see what they know or think already,” Dr. Nunes-Moreno says. “That way you don’t have to worry about what you’re telling them or not telling them. You can just start from where they are.”

Validating kids’ feelings after a traumatic event

However kids are coping with upsetting current events they’ve heard about or experienced, they’re going to have some feelings about them. Aside from giving kids space to talk about their feelings, parents can make space for kids to feel them — and to feel OK about those feelings.

Just as adults sometimes try to shield or protect kids from traumatic events by not talking about them, adults sometimes try to soothe kids by telling them not to feel the way they feel.

“Maybe they’re thinking it’s scary,” says Dr. Nunes-Moreno. “Sometimes parents will say, ‘Don’t be scared.’ Or if they’re crying, parents might say, ‘Shh, don’t cry.’ It’s a well-intentioned way of consoling, but it can be confusing for kids, because it sends the message that their feelings are wrong. 

“Instead,” she suggests, “parents can just validate their feelings: ‘Sure, that makes sense. I think it’s scary too.’ Or, ‘If it makes you feel like crying, that’s OK. You can cry.’ Just normalizing their feelings and being a listener.”

Another part of being a listener is not to do too much talking. Let kids lead the conversation. If they have questions, answer them as simply as possible — without giving too much detail. And if you don’t have an answer, it’s OK just to say so.

Of course, how those conversations unfold will largely depend on the age of the child, among other factors. Dr. Nunes-Moreno offers some tips.

Handling conversations about traumatic events, by age 

Dealing with burnout and compassion fatigue

“I think everyone can get a little exhausted when they’re exposed to too much,” says Dr. Nunes-Moreno. “If there’s COVID, if there’s a community disaster, if you’re feeling those losses getting closer and closer, there can be a sense of getting desensitized.”

Although clinically the term “compassion fatigue” tends to refer to people in helping professions, such as first responders, teachers and therapists, the stress of traumatic events piled on top of each other can impact anyone. And it’s especially true for people tasked with caring for others — like parents.

And since parents are often in charge of conducting conversations and answering kids’ questions about traumatic events, it’s important for parents to be in a good headspace for those conversations and to take a break when needed. Get enough sleep, eat a good meal. Make time to move around and socialize with people you love.

“We can make time for laughter and joy even when there are things going on that are horrible,” says Dr. Nunes-Moreno. “It’s a balance.”

When to seek help for coping with traumatic events

After traumatic events, especially multiple ones, it can be difficult to tell what’s normal and what’s not, especially in terms of how kids are coping. Kids show distress and signs of trauma in a number of ways, including emotional changes, such as feeling nervous, irritable, angry or sad. They may have mood swings or act out. They might have difficulty concentrating, sleeping or completing tasks, or they might withdraw from social situations. Younger kids might be clingy.

The good news is that all of these behaviors are normal, expected responses to trauma — for a time.

If they go on for more than about three months, though, says Dr. Nunes-Moreno, or if the behaviors are severe enough that they’re getting in the way of day-to-day life, it may be a sign of some difficulty coping or moving past the trauma. Families should consider seeking support from a mental health professional who works with children or families.

Answers in your inbox

Expert advice delivered directly to you. Get weekly tips