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Helping Kids Understand Frightening Events

Stop, look, and listen.

By Leon Hoffman, MD

It is impossible to completely shield children from learning about horrific events such as the recent terrorist bombing in Manchester, England. The pervasive and repetitive news coverage of these frightening events, particularly on cable news programs, news flashes on our iPads and cell phones, and on social media makes them impossible to completely avoid. In general, children, especially young children, should be shielded by insuring as much as possible that they avoid watching these events on TV and mobile screens.

Yet, inevitably, they will learn about such events from friends and other adults. As they try to digest what they hear, confusions and misinterpretations are extremely common.

Parents are the most important people in a child’s life. One of their tasks is to help a child understand the world as best as he or she can and try to feel as safe as possible. How can we talk with our children about these events? How can we help them during these times when the news is filled with scary events?

When scary events occur, a parent must first deal with his or her own fears and anxieties. Children who see their parents successfully cope with stress are able to feel soothed by the parent and can deal with potential trauma more effectively. In order to do this, the parents must be able to be in contact with their own feelings.

The research

A recent study found that when parents are not able to detect emotions in themselves they are less likely to offer adaptive assistance to their distressed children. This may explain why children with anxiety issues are more likely to have parents who are overprotective and who encourage avoidance when faced with anxiety-provoking situations.

It was shown that it is most valuable for parents to be able to acknowledge (to themselves) their own experience with a variety of emotions, including negative emotions such as anxiety, sadness, and anger. When a parent can master painful emotions, they then can help their children with more supportive responses. If parents are overwhelmed themselves, they may become overprotective and intrusive, they may not hear their children’s emotions and, thus be unable to soothe and comfort their children.

In short, parents are role models to their children of all ages. What can they do?

Stop, look, and listen

An easy way to remember how to interact with your child is to stop, look, and listen. The most important thing to remember is that kids look to parents as role models. So it is very important for parents to try to stay calm and tell themselves to stop, look and listen:

  • Stop whatever is going on as soon as you realize your child is saying something, doing something, or acting in an unusual manner.
  • Look at the situation for clues about the cause of the child's bad feelings.
  • Listen to your child's words and reactions for clues about the origin of his or her bad feelings.

How is danger understood by children?

How you talk to children about scary events is in part dependent on their age and where they are developmentally. Try to see it from their point of view, at their level of understanding.

  • For young children, how adults, especially their parents, react to and deal with stresses is most important. Parents are their protectors and a calm parent usually begets a calm child. For example, if a toddler skins his or her knee and the parent calmly kisses the boo-boo, the child will quickly be comforted.
  • Children of school-age do more things on their own. During times of stress, it is important to try to continue their normal routine. Children at this developmental stage respond to structure and activities. They focus much more on what they and their friends can do, whether the activity is a game, board game, video game, or their school work. Parents may be surprised that their school-aged children are more interested in playing a video game than talking about the events in the news.
  • Adolescents, during times of stress, may react in one of two ways: They become too dependent or too reckless. Parents need to be on the lookout for risk-taking behavior (e.g., drugs). For example, an adolescent who heard about an untoward event went to a party with his friends and blacked out from drinking for the first time. In contrast, another adolescent incessantly spoke about the frightening event trying to master the anxiety.


All children are most concerned with themselves, families, relatives, and friends. The most important message to give to our children is that negative events may have occurred, but they are safe and we will continue to protect them.

Parents need to help children express their anxieties and fantasies without ridiculing them or denying them. "Acting like a baby" is common among children who are feeling frightened. This is called "regression" and indicates the child may need more reassurance than anticipated. If symptoms of regression persist consult a professional.

Parents need to listen to their children: their questions, their worries, their fantasies. If questions are repetitively asked, repetitive reassurance is required. On the other hand, if a child is overly timid and inhibited, the parent may need to initiate a discussion about events that they are sure the child has heard about.

Finally, it is always important to reassure children that the authorities are working toward what needs to be done to insure our safety. With adolescents, safety precautions need to be reinforced since adolescents, as they move to adulthood, may act in what is known as a “counterphobic” way, as if no harm can come to them.

About the Author: Dr. Leon Hoffman is a Psychiatrist and Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist; Training and Supervising Analyst in adult, child, and adolescent analysis, Director of the Pacella Parent Child Center and co-Director, Pacella Research Center at NYPSI (New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute); faculty at the Icahn Medical School at Mount Sinai; Chief Psychiatrist, West End Day School in NYC; Co-Chair, Committee on Research Education (CORE) of the American Psychoanalytic Association. He is the author of Manual for Regulation-Focused Psychotherapy for Children with Externalizing Behaviors (RFP-C): A Psychodynamic Approach, co-written with Timothy Rice and with Tracy Prout.

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