Expert advice on talking to kids about violence

April 16th, 2013

Victor Carrion

Ubiquitous news reports of incidents like yesterday’s explosions at the Boston Marathon and the Newtown, Conn., shootings in December present a challenge for parents.

VICTOR CARRION, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital  (LPCH) who has conducted extensive research on childhood trauma, says honest, age-appropriate communication with children is one of the most important elements of helping youngsters handle news of traumatic events.

In the following Q&A reprinted from the LPCH website, Carrion offers several suggestions for parents to help their kids process difficult news.

What are the potential short-term psychological effects on school-age children hearing or seeing information about these events?

The short-term effects include children becoming concerned about their safety or the safety of their family. In addition, children who are closer in terms of proximity to the event will be at increased risk for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, because the images in the media are now so prevalent, the psychological effect on the child can be the same as if the child were at the scene of the incident. We must protect children by limiting their exposure to these images.

What about the long-term psychological impacts?

For some children—if they are not treated via an assessment and psychosocial therapy—their academic and social life will be impacted. Difficulty paying attention, managing emotional responses and problems with memory are common symptoms children may experience.

What are some of the early warning signs of childhood trauma for parents to look out for?

Irritability, a greater susceptibility to crying, and difficulty with sleep are among the symptoms that should raise a red flag if they persist longer than a month. Younger children may become clingier and experience nightmares and distressing or bad dreams. Children may regress in some behaviors—such as bedwetting or sucking their thumb—and you may hear them complaining more about a stomachache or headache.

What is your recommendation for parents on how to talk to their children about disturbing events and images they witness or hear about?

Encourage discussion with your children, but do not force it. Let them know that it’s OK to be fearful or angry or sad. It’s also very important to give the message, “You are protected. You are safe.” In the event you notice warning signs in your children’s behavior, I would recommend taking them to their pediatrician or mental health specialist to obtain a consultation.

Learn more about Victor Carrion, MD, and his research interests.