Bullying Prevention and Help

How to Talk About Traumatic Events and Tragedies

Violence, shootings, terrorism and other tragedies in the news can be traumatic and create an array of feelings in children and youth as well as adults. When tragedy happens, school principals, school support staff and teachers may want to consider providing structured opportunities for students and staff members to discuss these events and share their feelings, which can include fear, anger, sadness, frustration and more. There is often a strong need for children, youth and adults to discuss and process the events and connect with others. Children and youth may see disturbing pictures on TV, online or through social media, which can cause more feelings of fear. Discussing the news and tragic events can help calm students and help them focus on their learning. Parents, families and other adults can also play an important role in supporting youth following tragedy.

The challenge for adults in helping youth cope with tragic events is that such happenings can also be frightening and angering for the adults. Here are some suggestions on how to talk about the news with young people.

Reminders for Adults

The challenge in helping children and youth talk about current events is that those events may also affect the adults. Here are some reminders for adults:

Adults’ Role. Try to be calm and focused for the students. Adults need to get the support they need from other adults so they are able to effectively guide students.

Listen. Find out what students’ fears and concerns are and address them as directly and calmly as possible. Reassure them that adults are there to help and protect. Circles and class discussion are ways to help students talk about their feelings and what they can do to cope.

After giving students time to talk, return to the regular school routine, including recess and other physical activity as the schedule allows.

Use your resources. In addition to the student support staff, there are also community groups and organizations that are willing and able to help you talk to students. Remember that recent traumatic events in the news can trigger emotions and feelings in students based on trauma they’ve experienced in their past. Contact private counselors, members of the faith community, community organizations, restorative practices and mediation programs, public health and sexual assault and domestic abuse programs.

What to Say or Do after a Traumatic Event or Tragedy

After a local, national or international trauma or tragedy, it is important to make time for discussions about what happened among neighbors, community members, family members, children and youth.

To foster effective discussions, adults should be intentional about choosing a format for the discussion. Using the circle process is one effective approach. A circle gives each person the opportunity to speak as well as listen to others in a respectful, equal, safe and supportive atmosphere.

With any process used, the adult, leader or teacher need to make sure to:

  • Allow everyone to speak. Ensure that everyone has the chance to speak by going in order around the circle.
  • Reinforce the positive behavioral expectations or rules that the class and school follows and the values that you all share.
  • Recognize that difficult feelings are normal, natural and need to be expressed, but need to be handled respectfully and in a manner that deescalates conflict rather than fuels it. Speaking in “I” statements (“I” statements are statements where the person speaking takes responsibility for what they are saying such as -- “I feel” and “I think.”) helps to encourage thoughtful discussion.
  • Build communication and connection and defuse tension by inviting people to share their thoughts and feelings.

Opening a Discussion

Begin discussions with an opening statement such as: “With recent events, we’ve all been hearing discussions and opinions about how to keep our community, country and world safe. It is important that all of us are able to express our feelings and share our thoughts and concerns about what is happening. As we discuss this, remember that we value each person equally, we are respectful of one another and that we are kind and speak kindly to others. Let us go around the circle or group and talk about we’re hearing in the news and elsewhere.”

Possible Discussion Questions

  • What have you heard about what’s happening in our community, nation and world?
  • How are you feeling about what happened?
  • How did what you heard or saw affect you?
  • Who can you talk to here at school if you need help or are worried?
  • How can you be a friend or peacemaker to other students and adults in this classroom or school?
  • What is one thing that you can commit to doing to make sure that all students feel safe here at our school?

(Each participant can have the opportunity to address each question.)

Closing a Discussion

At the end of the discussion, encourage students to take care of themselves and each other in this time. Here is one example of closing statement: “Remember small acts of disrespect can lead to violence. But small acts of kindness and peacemaking have the power to stop violence and create peace. This is the time to practice acts of respect and kindness. Help each other out. Solve any conflicts or disagreements peacefully. Talk to me or other adults if you have further questions or concerns.”

For more resources on how to talk about traumatic and violent events, read Talking to Kids about Tragedies and Talking to Children about School Shootings.