Talking to children in times of crisis


by New Day Producers

Posted on January 7, 2013 at 1:02 PM

Pediatrician Don Shifrin joined Margaret to talk about talking to children in times of crisis. Here are his tips for parents.

What should we do when we see or hear about unimaginable suffering?  It is shocking to learn about children dying violently and senselessly. When children see such an event on television or on the Web, it is natural for them to worry about their own school and their own safety. In the wake of the recent Connecticut tragedy, many of us grapple with how to talk to and reassure our families.

You may be struggling to understand how this could occur, and why? There will rarely be any satisfactory answers. Typical emotional responses following a traumatic event include sorrow, grief, fear, disillusionment, and anger.


Expect and acknowledge that you will have a wide range of emotions. Then find time to talk about them with your support group. Don’t expect to alleviate all your anxieties or fears with words. It will take time. But remember that anxiety and fear are very contagious symptoms.  Not the emotions you want to model, or transmit to your children. Empathy, sadness and appropriate grief should be modeled in a calm manner. They need to know how you and they should process this trauma. It is very difficult to shield your emotions from your children. They may assume things are very different than you perceive them because you have not revealed your feelings to them.  You can honor your feelings and still remain a calming influence on your family. But you need to take care of yourself first. Try to re-establish your regular adult and family routines. Get help if you need it, but do not attempt to process significant concerns with your children. They also have to process their feelings as well.

Remember that there is no time limit on grief. Which leads us to item number 2.


Always listen first to what children and adolescents have to say before you try and provide explanations or reassurance.  We have a primitive, visceral need to provide reassurance and guarantee safety many times before we understand what it is that children really fear.  From the very first moments of their lives, our children seek physical safety, emotional security, and develop trust that we will provide both.

Take time to honor children's feelings; and to make your home a "safe place... where your children find the trust and comfort they need.

When your children are talking about concerns, stop whatever you are doing and listen. Maintain eye contact and express interest in their words, even if their concerns are difficult to hear. Let them finish and then calmly repeat what you heard them say to ensure that you understand them correctly.

Realize that your children may test you by telling you a small part of what is bothering them. Always encourage them to talk and they may share the rest of the story.

So ask very open questions and verbalize what you see: “I noticed you have not been going outside to play with your friends.” Or, “why do you think you are worried about going to school today?” This will give children a chance to verbalize their fears without you quickly verbalizing that, “you don’t have to worry.”

BE HONEST! Acknowledging bad events does not mean you cannot emphasize the good in their community.  Parents, teachers, school officials, community partners such as Police and Fire Departments are all there to help keep us safe. 

Tips: Be available. Notice times when your kids are most likely to talk — for example, at bedtime, before dinner, in the car — and be fully available to just listen. Start the conversation; it lets your kids know you care about what’s happening in their lives.

Find time each week for a one-on-one activity with each child, and avoid scheduling other activities during that time. Initiate conversations by sharing what you have been thinking about, or what other kids may be thinking about, rather than beginning a conversation with questions.

Focus on your child’s feelings rather than your own during your conversation.

Recognize age-appropriate reactions to stress: elementary school age reveal warning signs through play and often physical symptoms; adolescents, with more words and actions. If you are concerned that symptoms such as school refusal, school anxiety, decreased school performance, sleeplessness, headaches, stomachaches, aggressive behaviors, or excessive worrying, contact your Pediatrician, or a qualified mental health professional.


With so much violence on view for children and adolescents, from cartoons, to TV, games, talk shows, cable, and movies, it is definitely hard to shield children from viewing violence. Our children have seen screen violence glamorized, and normalized. More than likely they are becoming desensitized to the effects of sanitized violence.

When an event like Newtown occurs to remind us of the unspeakable suffering that occurs from acts of violence, we should re-examine and definitely affirm our commitment to change the uniquely American culture of violence that seems all pervasive.

Here I would ask parents to model tolerance, but also to safeguard their children from an overload of TV coverage of either the events or the aftermath. It mystifies me why the media would subject children who have just been through an excruciating traumatic event to interviews about what they heard, saw, or think. That is certainly not going to help them process their fear and grief.

Help your children identify actions they can take to help those affected by recent events. Rather than focus on what should have or could have been done to prevent such a tragedy from happening, concentrate on the positives in your community and what could you do to help those personally suffering.

Always the calm reassurance of your and others’ efforts regarding children’s safety should be repeated, but not in anxious tone. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” There’s nothing to worry about.”

Lastly, a newer, healthy respect regarding screen violence and guns: parents are the filters by which children see and process the world. Comment on viewed violence to them, and use every opportunity presented (and there will be many) to teach tolerance and empathy.

Lastly, we need to be aware that many homes do have legal firearms. We need to “ASK”

ASK (Asking Saves Kids)

 Is there a gun where your child plays?” Asking this simple question is an important step every parent can take to help their kids stay safe. About 1/3 of homes with kids have guns, many left unlocked or loaded. Just talking to your child about the dangers of firearms is not enough. Children are naturally curious. If a gun is accessible in someone’s home, there is a good chance a child will find it and play with it. Countless tragedies have occurred when kids found guns that parents thought were well hidden or safely stored.