Listening to children

There is no greater blow to a society than when its children are harmed. How do we support our children who affected by violence?

"After a traumatic event, children's questions always go back to safety," says Marlene Husson, a clinical psychotherapist and grief counselor at Aurora Mental Health Center in Colorado. Children may experience both physical and mental reactions ranging from nervousness and grief to changes in appetite and sleeping patterns.

These reactions are natural, and we can help alleviate them as parents, caregivers and teachers by helping children rebuild supports within their relationships and environment. Give them the opportunity to express feelings and concerns without fear of judgment. Reassure them that there are adults around who care for them and are dedicated to their safety.

The U.S. Department of Education promotes the Listen, Protect, Connect "Model and Teach" program as an example of how to support students affected by violence (near or distant).


Step 1: Listen

Parents, caregivers, teachers should facilitate opportunities for children to share their experiences and understanding of what happened, and also express their feelings. Younger children may be encouraged to draw.

Step 2: Protect

Adults should work to reestablish children's feelings of physical and emotional safety. Families are advised to avoid news coverage, violent films and other stimuli that may keep the trauma churning.

Step 3: Connect

Parents, caregivers and teachers can encourage children to reestablish normal social connections, both in and outside of school. Self-isolating is one of the common reactions to trauma.

Step 4: Model

At home and school, children look for behavioral cues from the adults they respect and trust. Adults should model calm and optimistic behavior. This sets an example, and sends the signal that as anxious or sad as children may feel, it is necessary and possible to carry on.

Step 5: Teach

Psychologists, social workers or counselors can present information to students and parents about common stress reactions. These may include changes in appetite and sleep patterns, as well as temporary difficulties with concentration and memory. These professionals can also reinforce that seeking help is admirable, not something to shy away from.

When tragedy strikes, children turn to both teachers and parents for guidance and reassurance. We hope educators across the country will use the tips here to help bring a sense of safety back to their students. But the undertaking is far greater than that.

Until we find effective methods of preventing violence on the streets, in homes, and in schools, educators will continue to bear the responsibility of supporting students who face an alarmingly violent world.

Inspired by excerpts from Sean McCollum's article, Teaching Tolerance, Dec. 14, 2012.

Other sources you may find helpful:

The American Academy of Pediatrics on School Shootings,

From the University of Minnesota on Talking to Kids About Violence Against Kids,

National Association of School Psychologists on Talking to Children About Violence, Explaining the news to our kids from Common Sense Media

Hospice, Best Articles on Talking to Children About Death.