To better protect and heal children from trauma and its emotional impact


Parenting in 2013: To Talk or Not to Talk? Why and How to Have Difficult Conversations.

Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

Elissa Brown, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Executive Director of the Child HELP Partnership, St. John’s University

The end of 2012 brought two traumatic events to the northeastern U.S., both of which devastated the children and adults who were directly impacted. The power of trauma is that it also impacts those of us who were not directly impacted. At the Child HELP Partnership, a specialized center for child trauma, we were called upon by mental health professionals, educators, clergy, and media to offer advice after Hurricane Sandy and the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Among the questions that arose again and again were: “Should we tell our children? If so, how?”

As much as we want to protect our children from knowing about tragedy, we need to consider the consequences of not telling them, and we need to think about the reasons why we wouldn’t. What role does our discomfort play in avoiding these conversations?

Below are my reasoning and suggestions for having these conversations. I have tried to consider my experiences with children and research on children’s development. My goal is to empower you to open the lines of communication and deliver accurate, age-appropriate information to your children.

Why Tell Your Children:

  • Because, depending on their age, they are likely to find out—remember that your children probably have friends with older siblings who know…and talk about it.
  • You want to be the source of information for your children—not another child, not the media, not even other adults (who may not realize the sensitivity of little ears).
  • Knowledge is power – you don’t want your children wondering what the other kids are whispering about in the corner.
  • You do not want your children to think you are uncomfortable talking about upsetting topics (even if you are)—this can stop them from coming to you down the road when they need help.

How to Prepare:

  • Make a plan with all of the caregivers of your children—have a united front.
  • Think about what you want your children to learn—consider that you may have different take home points for different children.
  • Consider each child’s personality and sensitivities, including how they have reacted to upsetting information in the past.
  • Try to anticipate questions and prepare your answers. Some of the tougher questions that children may ask include: Can this happen to me? Why did that happe
  • Role play the interaction with your spouse, another family member, or friend—someone who has a sense of how your children will respond.
  • Turn off the media coverage.

An Outline of the Conversation:

  • Start by asking your children what they know about the trauma. For example: “There seems to be a lot of buzz at the school lately. What is it about?” You will learn what about the situation is prominent for your children and whether they are misinformed.
  • Tell them what happened. Your goal is to balance honesty with conveying a sense of safety. Use short phrases (e.g., “20 children were badly hurt in a school in Connecticut”) and observe your children’s responses.
  • Encourage questions. If the question is factual (e.g., “Did they die?”), answer it (i.e., “Yes”). Answer only the question that is asked – children tend to ask questions that they can handle the answers to. If the question is conceptual (e.g., “Why would someone do this?”), ask your children what they think. Their answer will provide guidance to you about next steps—follow their lead. It is okay to say that you need time to think about and/or research an answer to their question.
  • Not all parents will decide to tell. Remind your children that every parent gets to decide what they tell their children—it is not your children’s job to tell others.
  • That said, we all need social support after a trauma. Identify some friends with like-minded parents with whom your children can discuss the event. Eavesdrop to ensure that none of the children are becoming agitated during the discussion.
  • End the conversation by telling your children that it is natural for them to have more thoughts and/or questions over time. Encourage them to revisit the topic with you.
  • Inform your children’s caregivers about the conversation.
  • Connect with schools, other local resources, and national experts as needed.