What You Can Do to Help Kids Process Trauma: Talking to Your Kids About Violence in the News

With the recent mass shootings in El Paso, TX and Dayton, OH making headlines, you may be wondering about talking to kids about violence and how to talk to your children about these types of events. When children are exposed to information that even adults have trouble making sense of, it is difficult to support them as they process their emotions. 

Unfortunately, in today’s climate, talking to the children and adolescents in your lives about gun violence may be unavoidable. This article offers some recommendations for navigating these difficult conversations.

How Children Process Trauma

First, it’s important to realize that children process trauma differently from adults. While adults suffer from traumatic experiences, they at least have the vocabulary and the ability to process their thoughts and emotions about trauma. Children must turn to adults to help them feel safe and secure.

Because children and adolescents’ brains are still developing, they may suffer additional effects of trauma. Research has shown that trauma can change how the body and brain work in children leading to complications such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and mental health issues. Those effects may not fully show up until years later.

This also means the signs and symptoms of childhood trauma may be harder for adults to recognize. Symptoms of trauma in children include:

  • Increased thoughts and discussion about death

  • Increased concern for a parent’s safety, or the safety of siblings or friends

  • Problems with eating or sleeping

  • Difficulty focusing in school or acting out during class

  • Problems finishing homework

  • Difficulty separating from parents

  • Avoiding school or activities they usually love

  • Expressions of fear or anxiety

  • Defiance at home or school

  • Changes in friendships or other significant relationships

While some children experience trauma due to events they hear about indirectly from friends, in overhearing adult conversations, or from the news, for others, violence at home is a daily occurence. The effects of experiencing ongoing violence during childhood can last well into adulthood and include increased risk for substance abuse, depression, and other risky behaviors, as well as homelessness. If a child you know is at risk, be sure they know you are there to listen. Talking to kids about violence is one of the best ways to get involved.

What You Can Do

Parents and other adults can support children by focusing on 5 protective factors that early childhood development professionals have identified as helping to mitigate the negative effects of trauma.

In more concrete terms, you can do the following in your daily life:

Be present and listen: Turn off phones, tablets, and the T.V. during family time. Ongoing exposure to tragic events can be overwhelming for both adults and children. The 24/7 news cycle makes us feel informed, but it also increases our levels of fear and anxiety. Remember this mental stress can present differently in different people, especially in children.

Give simple, honest answers: Yes, it’s important to keep the discussion age appropriate, but this doesn’t mean you need to sugarcoat the truth. When talking to kids about violence, let your kids take the lead in these conversations. Listen and answer all of their questions as honestly as you can. Avoid long answers with younger kids. But with teens, be ready for a more in depth discussion.

Create a safe environment. All humans need a safe and secure environment in order to thrive and live well. Do what you can to provide this to your kids. Let them know you’re there to keep them safe and that they can always talk to you about how they are feeling. In addition, routines help create a sense of safety. So maintain a regular routine as much as possible with homework, chores, and other house rules.

Take care of yourself. Your feelings matter too. If you feel overwhelmed by news events, plan a news “fast,” where you give yourself 24 hours (or a whole weekend!) without watching, listening, or discussing news events. Unplugging is a great way to recharge. Can you plan a family getaway to relax and reconnect? Above all make sure you are eating well, staying active, getting enough sleep, and practicing self-care, regardless of circumstances.

When to Seek Professional Help

It’s often difficult to know when it’s time to bring in a professional. If you notice symptoms and signs of trauma sticking around for a long time and interfering with everyday life, you might want to consider talking with someone. A trauma counselor or therapist can help the family process violent events together. You may also want to contact someone who specializes in childhood trauma if you are concerned that your child is at risk for developing ongoing symptoms.

Here are additional resources for finding professional help, if you’re ready to take this step.

Gun violence in the news or in our daily lives can have long-ranging consequences for both children and adults. Although talking to kids about violence can be challenging, it is crucial for processing natural emotions that inevitably arise. Start the conversation with the children in your life today!

At the Exchange Family Center, our professionals partner with other local organizations to help children in the Durham area develop resiliency. For more information, contact us by filling out this form or reaching out to one of our staff members directly.