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How to talk to your family about traumatic events

how parens can talk to children about traumatic events
Written by Jennifer Palisoc

When tragedy strikes, it can be difficult to understand.

Traumatic events such as the Toronto van attack, or the deadly crash in Humboldt, often leave people feeling shaken.

For parents, tragic stories such as these are often a tough conversation to have with children of all ages, who may be hearing about these tragedies and others, through social media, in school or in conversations with their friends.

How do you address a traumatic event? Is it appropriate to discuss? At what age do you talk to kids about such complicated and tragic circumstances?

They are questions many people are asking these days, so I reached out to Dr. Ari Zaretsky, Psychiatrist-in-Chief at Sunnybrook for expert insight on how families can talk about such a sensitive topic together.

How can parents speak to their children about traumatic events?

Parents need to consider the developmental age of their child when discussing traumatic events. Very young children under age 4 often do not have a full understanding of death. For children that do have an understanding of concepts like death, talking to the child about the questions they have on what they are seeing on the news, is appropriate. It’s important to listen to their concerns and let them know it’s okay to share how they are feeling.

Exposure to media

Parents should try to gauge the amount of information they provide to the needs of their child.  It is important not to provide excessive focus on the traumatic event. Limit exposure to media coverage, particularly for school-aged children, so it doesn’t appear that the situation is an on-going event.

Signs that a child is more upset than they’re letting on

Signs of emotional difficulty in the child might be; sleep disturbance, nightmares, appetite changes, loss of weight, emotional withdrawal or irritability.

If a child is showing signs of trauma, what can parents do?

The parents should speak to the child to find out what the child is experiencing and ask their child if something is upsetting them. If it is prolonged, consider seeking the assistance of their family doctor or pediatrician as a first step. If these symptoms are prolonged, the child may benefit from some form of therapy.

Reassuring your child

A key point to mention to children is that even though bad things can happen in life there are lots of caring people like emergency workers, doctors and nurses that can help us and protect us from harm.

Explaining traumatic events is not always easy, but it is important to acknowledge your child’s concerns and reassure them that you are there to listen and help answer their questions along the way.


About the author


Jennifer Palisoc

Jennifer Palisoc is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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