The Shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut has impacted the world. The following material is adapted from Worried No More: Help and Hope for Anxious Children by Aureen P. Wagner, Ph.D.; How to help Children Cope with Trauma, Tragedy, War and Violence.

Strategies for Coping with Trauma, Tragedy, War and Violence

Terrorism, war, school shootings and kidnapping of innocent children have unleashed anxiety about our “worst fears” coming true. Many adults have been deeply troubled by these events and have had difficulty understanding and coping with them. Children are less able, as a rule, to make sense of violent events and cope with them than are adults. It is important to keep in mind that reactions to trauma are a process, not an event, and may manifest in different ways over time. How can you help your child cope with trauma, disasters, tragedies and terrorism in today’s society? How can you help them understand the violence in the world? How can you keep your child safe in this day and age? How much should you tell them about the dangers of the world and how to fend for themselves?

The following are some Do’s and Don’ts that parents and school personnel can use to help children cope:


  • Stay calm and collected. The child will be looking to you for safety signals.
  • Take time to deal with your own reactions; seek outside support and comfort if needed.
  • Ask the child to tell you what he knows of the events; use the child’s level of understanding to guide your response.
  • Encourage questions and discussion; let the child’s questions be your guide to the content of the conversation.
  • Answer questions honestly and accurately, but limit information to necessary details.
  • Speak to the child in terms and language that he understands at his level. Use metaphors and analogies. Young children often exhibit their feelings through their play and artwork.
  • Acknowledge and accept the child’s fears; let him know that it is normal and natural to feel upset, worried or angry. Share your own reactions, to normalize the child’s experience but not to overburden him.
  • Reassure the child that he is safe and protected. Older children and teenagers may benefit from knowing all the measures being taken to ensure their safety. Young children need to know simply that they are safe.
  • Give children as many reasons as possible about why they are unlikely targets, but acknowledge, if necessary, that sometimes bad things do happen to good people. Some children push for guarantees about safety, and may need to know that absolute safety can never be predicted nor guaranteed.
  • Be physically and emotionally available to provide nurturing and comfort as needed.
  • Make extra time to be with the child in the mornings, evenings and at bedtime, to allow opportunities for the child to express feelings and ask questions.
  • Help the child distinguish between real and imagined fears.
  • Teach the child to communicate distress and ask for help as needed.
  • Limit exposure to graphic replays of the events; turn off the TV if necessary.
  • Watch television with the child to monitor exposure and respond to concerns.
  • Avoid detailed adult discussions of the events in front of the child.
  • Dispel misinformation and misconceptions – learn and share the facts.
  • Model the behaviour the child is expected to learn. Be aware of your own feelings and channel them appropriately. Find a good friend or counsellor to talk to.
  • Teach the child that anger and conflicts are better resolved with words than by lashing out inappropriately.
  • Get “back to business” and adopt normal school and family routines as soon as possible.
  • Spend extra time doing fun things; provide distraction with these activities.
  • Maintain regular bedtime schedules and routines but provide extra comfort as necessary: a bedside light, special toys or sitting with the child as he falls asleep.
  • Express faith, hope and optimism that things will eventually be better and will return to a new normal. They will know happiness again.
  • Help the child (if old enough a so inclined) to show caring and empathy for victims… to collect toys, clothes or money to help out, to write letters, or organize a relief effort. Such actions lessen feelings of helplessness. Children can be creative about finding their own ways to help out.
  • Sometimes a child regresses in behaviour to an earlier stage. Stress and anxiety can further upset a child’s emotions and behaviour.
  • If fears or distress are intense over a long period of time get help from a mental health professional.


  • Assume that there is one orderly or predictable way for the child to cope with trauma.
  • Rush the child to “get over” the events and to “get on with it”. Each child responds differently. Allow the child the time that he needs.
  • Volunteer information if the child does not seem to know about the events: instead remain vigilant for signs of worry or distress.
  • Overload the child with information. Let the child’s questions steer the conversation.
  • Discuss worst-case scenarios.
  • Misrepresent, distort or be dishonest about the facts.
  • Burden the child with your intense feelings. The child may become overwhelmed and interpret your reactions as reasons for fear and feel responsible for taking care of you.
  • Push teenagers or older children to discuss the events. Respect their wishes if they choose not to do so. Let them know you will be available if and when they are ready.
  • Suppress teenage humour as a way of coping, but channel it appropriately.
  • Speculate about perpetrators, motives or other details. Be honest when facts are few.
  • Perpetuate or allow stereotyping of people from different subgroups, cultures or countries; the child may easily generalize these beliefs.
  • Express or condone hatred or inappropriate anger. The child may find it difficult to sort through and manage intense emotions.
  • Allow or condone physical violence as an expression of anger.

Below are links to practical documents from A Practical Guide for Crisis Response in Our Schools: Sixth Edition and Comprehensive Acute Traumatic Stress Management, both publications of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. They include useful information for assisting professionals in addressing the emergent psychological needs of those impacted by this tragic event.