Health

How to Talk to Children about Violent Events

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Anxiety. Fear. Sadness.

Events like the Orlando shooting can generate strong emotions, especially in children.

These emotions can last a few days or weeks. The County of San Diego’s Deputy Director for Behavioral Health Services, Dr. Piedad Garcia, offers some advice on how to talk to children–and how to cope in general—with violent events like this:

  • Parents should be aware of their children’s responses and be ready to talk openly about them.
    “Each child manifests their distress differently,” Garcia said. “It has to do with their age and their maturity, and what they see on TV also.”
  • It’s not essential to provide too many details. Parents should monitor how their children are doing and acknowledge that it’s OK to feel worried and sad.
  • Some children may complain of stomach aches, or not want to go to school. They may also want to talk about the incident. These are normal reactions to a stressful situation.
  • Limit children’s exposure to news media, smartphones or other sources of news. Hearing updates on the event or other aspects of the case is not helpful as it can create further apprehension for children.

“Constant exposure to information about an incident can generate more anxiety.”

Piedad Garcia, Deputy Director for County Behavioral Health Services

  • The media may show distressing images, but parents should emphasize to children that the event has ended and reassure them that they are safe.
  • Answer children’s questions simply, without dramatizing the incident.
  • Provide perspective to children, explaining to them that these incidents are not a common occurrence.
  • Provide emotional support. It may take minutes, hours or even days for the incident to affect children. When it does, provide nurturance (hugs, empathy, kindness, calm support) and ask about their thoughts and feelings.
  • Adults should be aware of their own stress levels and try to stay calm. Children look to their caretakers and parents for answers and a sense of security and safety. Adults should talk to another adult about what they’re feeling too.
  • Keep doing the day-to-day family activities together. Some children’s sleep, appetite and social interest may be mildly disrupted. If these problems persist more than a few days, contact your family doctor or the County’s Access and Crisis Line at (888) 724-7240.

At the County Access and Crisis Line, trained counselors are available seven days a week, 24 hours a day, to help people with issues such as depression, anxiety, anger or other mental health challenges. The number, again, is (888) 724-7240.

For more advice on how to help children cope with tragedy-related anxiety, check out this tip sheet.

José A. Álvarez is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact