How to Talk to Your Kids About Mass Violence and Traumatic Events

The recent shooting in Maine, the Israel-Hamas War, the War in Ukraine…what do we say to the kids?

Silence Is Not An Option

In early October 2023, I was driving my regular route from home to school with my eight-year-old in the back seat. He was bundled up in a coat for the first time this year because of a sudden cold snap.

The radio was on and like we often do and we were listening to the news.

We listened for maybe a block or two and then, of its own volition it seems, my hand shot out and turned the radio off. There was just something about that moment with him in the car, his little body bundled into that big coat, still perched in a booster seat, and the expression on his face reflected in the rearview mirror.

“Mom! I was listening to that!” he shot back with frustration. “Turn it back on!”

That moment with my son is not the first time I was faced with the question: how do I talk about this–school shooting, natural disaster, war, tragedy, or violence–with my kids?

Senseless community violence, natural disasters, and mass tragedies are occuring at a rate that’s at times numbing, sometimes infuriating, and mostly devastating. You know what I’m referring to–those moments when you either figuratively or literally drop to your knees?

In her TED Talk from January 2023, trauma researcher Kristine Nguyen, refers to these incidences of violence consciousness-shifting moments–occurrences that have a profound collective impact on people both directly and indirectly.

For me as a kid, one of these moments was when John Lennon was assassinated. This is when I realized that one unbalanced person with a gun could change everything. The senseless violence of Columbine and September 11th would come later, turning my world view upside down.

Lately, I feel like these consciousness-shifting moments are coming faster than I can sometimes keep up with. I struggle with how to make sense of these acts of violence for myself, let alone know how to help my kids process them in a way that builds resilience rather than a sense that the world is inherently messed up and unsafe.

You might be wondering: did you turn the radio back on that morning?

I did.

My boy wanted to know what was going on. He wanted to engage and learn.

But first I told him that it was hard for me to hear. That I felt so much sadness for the people who were directly impacted. That it was impacting me. That I didn’t have all the answers or understand why these things happen in our world. And that I was there for him to talk to when he had questions or feelings about what he was hearing.

“Mom! I can handle it!” was his response. And so we listened until I dropped him off at school.

Silence is not an option during these moments of mass tragedy. Our kids, even when they aren’t directly impacted or actively reading, listening to, or watching the news, will hear about it. And better they know that we are there to process and grieve with them than to try keeping it from them or protecting them with silence about it.

It’s Also Okay to Turn It Off

If you are not paying attention to the news, I want to stop and take a moment here to let you know that this is okay too.

I was at a school function last week and a mom friend said something like: “I just have been numbing myself, I can’t pay attention to it all right now.”

There are times when we cannot take it all in. When we need to create some normalcy and safety for ourselves so that we can focus on what needs done right in that moment.

Maybe it’s the way we are inundated with information, or the way cell phone cameras can take real-time videos of a person dying (think George Floyd) but it makes sense in this modern world that sometimes self-preservation takes precedence over being informed.

Our response to hearing about mass traumas could lead us to experience anxiety, immense fear, difficulty coping, and a sense of hopelessness. Our kids will look to us for a sense that the world is going to be okay, even if things are pretty messed up in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy.

Sometimes we need to buffer ourselves. It’s okay to take a break and focus on what is right in front of you.

It’s important for our kids to see us do this–turn the news off when it’s not helpful to hear about, when it’s tipping us over into despair, or pushing us to become part of the tragedy.

But then, we need to find a way to re-engage and a way to help our kids make sense out of the senseless.

Tips For Talking About Traumatic Events With Your Kids

Start the Conversation
Even if your child isn’t talking about it, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t thinking about what’s happening. And chances are, a news pop-up or sound-bite is going to create some feelings or wonderings for them eventually.

Some effective ways to bring up the topic can go something like this:

  • “Are your friends talking about what’s going on in Gaza?”
  • “Did anyone mention the shooting today at school?”
  • “I’m really interested in hearing what you think about everything going on in the world right now–what are your thoughts?”

As you can see, the questions are open-ended and truly are invitations to either talk or not talk. If your kid is like “I don’t know–but let me show you this cool thing I built out of Legos” then that is just fine. You have opened up the door for when they do have strong feelings or reactions to events in the world, their school or their community.

Even very young children (as young as four or five) can benefit from talking about what’s going on with their caregivers. Your questions might sound slightly different, depending on their age and level of awareness. Keep the questions more open-ended and broad, rather than naming specific events. For example:

  • How do you feel about everything that’s going on in the world?
  • What concerns or worries do you have about the world?

For more tips about talking with younger children about incidents of mass tragedy in the news, check out PBS’s site here: Helping Children with Tragic Events in the News.

Listen
Even when your child says something outlandish like: “every plane is going to have a bomb” or; “they should just get out of there, instead of staying where the bombs are” we want to start by listening, without interjecting or saying things that over complicate the conversation.

Our goal is to hear our kids to the fullest extent possible and hold space for whatever comes out.

This serves two purposes:

  1. When we listen fully to our kids, we communicate that their fears are real, understandable, and not too big for us to support them with and;
  2. We find out what they already know so that we can help clear up misunderstandings that could be adding to their stress.

Share Your Feelings and Encourage Them To Share Theirs
You might find this step more difficult than you think. Especially if you have a tween or teen who is developing their own views on the state of the world and politics. If we focus on sharing thoughts about what’s going on, it can be easy to get bogged down in the weeds.

Instead, go for those feeling words. Like: “I feel sad about the people who died, how do you feel?” rather than sharing thoughts about which side of the conflict (or issue) you stand with.

Because if we talk about feelings, then we model something important: all feelings are valid and real. By taking the opportunity to be vulnerable with our kids about our own emotions, we help them tap into what may be beneath the surface for them.

For more about how to support our kids through difficult things, check out my previous posts including: Don’t Tell Me to Breath! How Parents of Teens Can Help Lower Anxiety in Their Kids and Building Positive Mental Health In Your Tween or Teen.

Both posts address a key point that is important here as well: as parents, we can have a powerful impact on our kids when we model positive coping strategies. In this instance, the goal is to model how to talk about our feelings in an open, supportive manner.

We also want to communicate that any feeling is okay after a mass tragedy occurs. I remember being a teacher when 9/11 occurred; some of my students were initially excited about what was happening.

When something big occurs, a natural response may be excitement or curiosity. Again, any emotion (including no immediate feelings about it) are all okay and should be validated.

Learn About What’s Happening Together
Get educated yourself on the issue and include them in this process. It’s okay if you have to look some things up, listen to podcasts on the subject, and generally get educated with your kid.

You will want to find news sources that are appropriate for young people. Common Sense Media provides a helpful list, with reviews of news sources for kids, including ones geared toward younger audiences. It can be found here: Common Sense Media.

Many public schools have a daily news channel that kids watch and respond to. At my boy’s middle school, for example, they watch ABC Kid News each morning. I enjoy asking them what they learned.

I especially like to hear when there is a debate about different topics among the class. It’s important for us all to try seeing other points of view, even when it differs from our own.

Take Action
It is through action that we get our power back. And, through relationship building, we increase our ability to be resilient both individually and collectively. We want to encourage our kids to join with others and do something about what they are feeling.

Maybe this looks like organizing a food drive when news about a natural disaster comes out. Perhaps your kids gather their allowance together and donate to a non-profit like The Red Cross. Perhaps they write letters to victims.

Throughout history, it has often been the young people who were able to imagine change. Right now is no exception.

Read more about these examples of young activists here:

No matter where you stand politically on issues like global warming, gun reform, and international affairs, what I’m highlighting with these examples of youth activism is that action can lead to transformation in the wake of tragedy.

To be transformative, our kid’s action-taking does not need to rise to the level of the examples I mentioned above–any level of doing something is going to help them regain a sense of control, connectedness, and safety.

Know When To Get Outside Support
Everyone’s response to a traumatic event will be different and so I want to caution here that there is no ‘normal’ way to react. However, if your child is upset enough that it interferes with everyday life, it might be a good time to seek professional help.

What to look for? Any change from previous functioning; for example, not enjoying activities like they used to, avoiding school or other places, having nightmares or difficulty sleeping, being distracted and having changes in grades, angry outbursts…these are all signs and symptoms that your child is in distress and that a consultation with a mental health professional may be needed.

If you would like more information on how to help your child make sense of traumatic events, reach out. I offer free 15-minute phone consultations and would be honored to help you and your tween or teen.

Just follow these steps:

Contact Della Pope
Meet with Della and start getting support right away.