Tips for Speaking with your Child after a Tragic Event


1. Reassure children that they are safe. Reassure students that schools are safe. Validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately. Recognize that some children may still be concerned. Explain to them the safety measures in place and reassure them that you and other adults will take care of them. 

2. Make time to talk. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. Be patient. Children and youth do not always talk about their feelings readily. Watch for clues that they may want to talk, such as hovering around while you do the dishes or yard work. Some children prefer writing, playing music, or doing an art project as an outlet. Young children may need concrete activities (such as drawing, looking at picture books, or imaginative play) to help them identify and express their feelings. Choose what information is to be shared based on the child’s age and an assessment of your child’s need to know.

3. Keep your explanations age appropriate.

    • Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give simple examples of school safety like reminding children that there are many adults monitoring the school and playground, emergency drills practiced during the school day, and the school has a good working relationship with York Regional Police.

    • Upper elementary school children may be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating facts from misinformation.

    • Upper elementary school and secondary school students may have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They may want to share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines (e.g., not providing building access to strangers, reporting strangers to the office, reporting threats to the school safety made by students or community members, etc.), communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.

    5. Observe children’s emotional state. Some children may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite and sleep patterns may indicate a child’s level of anxiety or discomfort. In most children, these symptoms will ease with reassurance and time. If anxiety or discomfort continues beyond four to six weeks, it is important to seek professional support. However, some children may be at risk for more intense reactions. Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental health issues, may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others. Seek the help of a mental health professional if you are at all concerned.

    6. Limit television viewing of these events. Limit television viewing and be aware if the television is on in common areas. Inappropriate information can cause anxiety or confusion, particularly in young children. Adults also need to be mindful of the content of conversations that they have with each other in front of children, even teenagers, and limit their exposure to vengeful, hateful, and/or angry comments that may be misunderstood.

    7.Maintain routines. Keeping to a regular schedule can be reassuring and promote health and well-being. Ensure that children get plenty of sleep, regular meals, and exercise. Encourage them to keep up with their schoolwork and extracurricular activities but don’t push them if they seem overwhelmed.


    Suggested Points to Emphasize When Talking to Children

    Don’t dwell on the worst possibilities. Although there is no absolute guarantee that something bad will never happen, it is important to understand the difference between the possibility of something happening and the probability that it will affect our school.

    Senseless violence is hard for everyone to understand. Doing things that you enjoy, sticking to your normal routine, and being with friends and family help us feel better and keep us from worrying about the event.

    Violence is never a solution to personal problems. Students can be part of the positive solution by participating in anti-violence programs at school, learning conflict mediation skills, and seeking help from an adult if they or a peer is struggling with anger, depression, or other emotions they cannot control.

    This information was prepared with resources from the National Association of School Psychologists, the Ontario Psychological Association, the American Psychological Association.