How to Talk to Your Children about Traumatic News

Hearing traumatic news is disorienting enough. Racing thoughts, fear, anxiety, and hypervigilance are all common reactions. Figuring out how to talk to your children about traumatic news can feel even more challenging.

You know your child better than anyone else. You know how they act when they’re excited, when they’re nervous, when they’re about to explode into a tantrum, and when they’re sad. You know what usually helps and what doesn’t help. In some ways, helping your child understand traumatic news isn’t much different. You have been attuning to your child, meeting their needs, and communicating with them since they were an infant. If anyone is up for the challenge of talking to your child about difficult news, it’s you!

Approaches include: 

  1. Prioritize connecting and attuning with your child’s emotional experience.
  2. Ask your child what they have heard about the event so that you can understand from where their concerns may be coming.
  3. Focus on your child’s needs rather than an accurate or logical description of what happened. However, after attuning to their emotional experience, it may be helpful to review accurate facts in order to soothe some of their fears.

Issues of childhood development show us that these approaches work. A brief description of childhood development and more tips on how to talk to your child about traumatic news are below.

Developmentally, most children are able to understand traumatic news at some level. Their cognitive abilities are nowhere near being completely developed. However, they are able to process information at a basic level. Bruce Perry, a leading author and practitioner in child psychology, describes a child’s developing brain like a “hierarchy” with important functions developing from bottom to top (Perry & Szalavitz, 2017, p. 295). At infancy, the brain is mostly developed at the base of the brain, which operates like basic survival skills. This region regulates automatic stress responses like crying when scared or smiling when comforted. As the child grows older, the middle part of the brain develops, which causes more complicated emotions, intense highs and lows, and lots of curiosity. The last and slowest brain function to develop is the cortical region, which sits right at the top front of the brain. It is responsible for abstract thinking, problem solving, and meaning making.

Another important part of understanding a child’s brain is to look at the right and left hemispheres of their brain. Daniel Siegal, who wrote The Whole Brain Child, describes how children usually function out of their right hemisphere which is more “directly influenced by the body and lower brain areas, which allow it to receive and interpret emotional information” (Siegal & Payne Bryson, p. 16). The left side, on the other hand, is responsible for literal thinking, logical thinking, and language. This means children are usually more in touch with their emotions and creativity, use more nonverbal communication, and do best with experiential learning.

Next time you see your child, try to imagine that the biggest, best-functioning parts of their brain are those lower and right side parts.

What does this have to do with talking to your child about traumatic news?
How children learn about traumatic news can be tricky. Maybe your child has already heard about the event from classmates at school, teachers, directly from the news, or other sources outside your control. Maybe you’re in a situation where your child doesn’t know anything and it’s up to you to decide how much or how little you tell them. Again, you know your child best and will decide exactly what’s right for them. No matter where your child gathered the information, below are some tips to help you support your child as they process traumatic news. 

Connect with the lower and right side of their brain first. When you’re discussing difficult news, your child is most likely going to process the information with the lower and right side functions of their brain first. That means they might express big emotions right away. Stress responses like fear, worry, and sadness might surface. On the other hand, their stress response might look like tuning out, distracting themself, or moving on to the next subject. Whatever their response is, your job is to attune to their right side brain instead of their left side brain. You should acknowledge their feelings whether big or small instead of jumping right to logical thinking. For example you might say, “You’re scared right now and feeling lots of worry” instead of “you don’t need to be afraid because the chances are really low this bad thing will happen to you.” You might also give them a big hug or prepare their favorite snack. Again, you know what comforts your child best. Once you’ve completely attuned to their emotional experience, then you can appeal to their left hemisphere and talk through a logical way to understand the news. Your child will process logical thinking much more successfully once their right hemisphere is fully acknowledged.

Play! Play! Play! As a therapist who practices play therapy and believes in the power of play, I can’t write this blog without encouraging you to play with your children. As I mentioned before, some children might seemingly brush off the news or disregard it all together. One of two things is happening. There’s a chance they are able to logically make sense of it and successfully integrate the news into a healthy worldview without much guidance. However, there is another chance they simply do not know how to express or process their feelings about the news. This is where play can be so helpful. Whether it’s active, outdoor play, imaginative play, storytelling, or creativity through arts and music, play can help children tap into their lower and right side brain functions where they are able to express themselves more fully. Once the child is moving, engaged in sensory activities, and using tactile functions, they will naturally begin to integrate their emotions and logic without much probing! Play is a child’s primary form of communication. If there’s something they need to process, it will surface in time. When it does, you will be there ready to connect, attune, and eventually help them understand the news.

Let them tell and retell the news as often as they need. I mentioned storytelling above. Allowing a child to tell a traumatic story over and over can sometimes feel counterintuitive. You might feel an urge to stop them from giving gruesome details or even thinking about the story all together. However, according to Siegel’s research, allowing a child to tell and retell a troubling story can have significant positive effects. Chances are they’re thinking about it anyway. Allowing them the space to tell and retell the troubling news helps children integrate the information into their explicit memory where they can process things logically rather than into their implicit memory where traumatic details get fuzzy, fragmented, and stuck. For example, a child who has not been given the space to retell a troubling story about kids in a school bus who got injured in a bad car accident might end up having a very hard time getting into a school bus weeks later. Instead, his dad could encourage him to tell and retell the story he heard, attune with the emotions his son experiences, then provide logical feedback about how buses are normally perfectly safe. Then his son will start to integrate the entire story, including the logical side, into his explicit memory allowing him to eventually move forward with a more dynamic understanding of himself and the world.

Take care of yourself. If you are the best person to talk about traumatic news with your child, then you need to make sure you’re taking care of yourself. Otherwise, you will most likely feel overwhelmed and isolated. Find your support network and spend time with people who can sit with you as you process the traumatic news. If you don’t have those people or feel like talking with friends isn’t helping, consider looking for a therapist. Lastly, take some time to figure out what self care strategies work for you. Maybe that’s a short walk every day, journaling, sports, gardening, art, or grabbing ten minutes alone at a coffee shop so you can take some deep breaths as you sip your latte. Self care looks different for everyone. Supporting your child as they process traumatic news starts with this very important step.

Go to this resource for more tips, age-specific information about how you can expect your child to react to traumatic news, and when to seek professional help: Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event: A Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Teachers


Perry, B. D., & Szalavitz, M. (2017). The boy who was raised as a dog: And other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook: What traumatized children can teach us about loss, love, and healing. Basic Books.

Siegel, D. J., & Payne Bryson, T. (2011). The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. Bantam Books.

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