UCSF Child-Trauma Expert Offers Advice on How to Talk to Kids

By Lisa Cisneros

Following the tragic shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut, UCSF child-trauma expert Patricia Van Horn, JD, PhD, says parents should be honest with their children about what happened.

A good source for parents, teachers and school administrators alike is the National Center for Traumatic Stress Network, which offers concrete advice on what to do in the aftermath of tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Patricia Van Horn, JD, PhDPatricia Van Horn, JD, PhD

Van Horn, director of the Infant, Child and Adolescent Services and associate director of the Child Trauma Research Program at the UCSF-affiliated San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, says parents should provide the facts about such incidents within what’s developmentally age-appropriate for them to hear.

Parents should give their children an opportunity to express their feelings about what happened, she says. “Listen to what they have to say and validate their feelings.”

“It is very important that parents be as reassuring as they can realistically be,” Van Horn says. “I would talk to young children about the ways in which their families and their school is working to protect them.”

What Schools Can Do

At school, children gathered in group settings should be focused on sharing their feelings and not relaying gory details about what happened or their previous experiences with violence, Van Horn advises.

“The risk is that [in groups] kids can get their peers more and more aroused and it becomes a group contagion, generating more fear and alarm,” she says.

Schools should offer counseling and give children a place to express their feelings, she explains. Schools also should inform parents about their practices and policies they have in place that are designed to ensure the safety and security of the school community.

“It would be good for schools to reach out to parents in their communities so that administrators can explain what their emergency procedures are and parents can explain them to their kids. The more details parents can share about the various steps in place to enhance safety, the less frightened kids will be.”

Once parents are informed, they can then relay to their children how the school is working to protect them and use that information to offer reassurance “so children can relax and learn.”

“It’s good for parents to know from the school exactly what the school is doing to show that administrators are aware of the shooting and has a plan for keeping kids safe,” Van Horn says.

Resources From the National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Download the following PDFs for more information about how parents can help their children cope with a traumatic event, like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting:

For more information, visit http://www.nctsnet.org

On Monday, parents may need to go to school with their young sons or daughters to provide extra comfort.

And while California is across the continent from Connecticut, parents and teachers should not shy away from broaching the subject, Van Horn says.

“The further away we are from the incident, the more tempting it is to just ignore it,” Van Horn says. “But some parents don’t do as good a job at filtering and sheltering kids from the news and then kids go to school and they talk to each other.”

For younger children, such as preschoolers and kindergartners, parents should keep details to a minimum. “If I had a young child, I would just say that a very sad and horrible and scary thing happened in another place, and people went to school with guns and many children were hurt.”

But don’t get more specific than that, she cautions. “Tell them if they have any questions or want to talk about it, I’m here and I want to listen.”

Pay Special Attention to Kids Previously Traumatized

Van Horn says for those children with prior experience with school shootings or police activity, parents and teachers should know that news like this may serve as a reminder of the previous trauma.

She says administrators in schools where there has been violence as well as those whose students live in violent communities should be very aware of how these kids are faring. They should give them opportunities to express their feelings.

“Teachers can give children opportunities to express their feelings by talking about them or by drawing," Van Horn says. “Some classrooms of children might be helped by doing something proactive such as, for example, writing sympathy notes to the school where the shooting happened.”

The one lesson for all parents, Van Horn emphasizes: “Don’t ever let your child go out the door before telling them you love them.”

“Focus on all the precious time you share with them, and the love you give them and your belief in them,” she says.

Look for Warning Signs

In the days ahead, parents can look for warning signs such as changes in sleep, eating and behavior patterns. “A gregarious child who becomes withdrawn may need help.”

Parents can also look for setbacks in recent developmental achievements, such as new readers who struggle or toddlers who forget their toilet training.

Finally, Van Horn advises parents to keep their children away from violent video games and TV shows all the time because exposure to media like this can be a vehicle for aggression.

“Kids who play repetitively without relieving their anxiety are in danger of being more traumatized as they recreate it over and over without expressing their fears and anxiety,” she says, adding that parents should seek mental health counseling for these children.

“At least for a while, be very careful about monitoring the violent police shows and video games that involve a lot of shooting and watch for kids who become more pre-occupied with them.”

For more help, check out the Psychological First Aid principles [PDF] that help calm people after national tragedies like the one today.