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Talking to Kids About Traumatic Events

Many children in schools across the country have now heard about the tragic events that happened in Parkland, FL. As a result, they may struggle with their own feelings of fear, confusion and uncertainty.

In this very important podcast, Suzanne Thompson, PhD discusses how to talk to kids about traumatic events that they see in the media, mental health issues in light of the Florida shooting, and resources available for parents and physicians at St. Louis Children's Hospital. 

Tune in to this very timely topic.
Talking to Kids About Traumatic Events
Featured Speaker:
Suzanne Thompson, PhD
Suzanne Thompson, PhD specializes in the diagnostic evaluation and cognitive-behavioral therapy for children ages 5-21 years, with primary focus on patients with chronic medical illness and associated emotional problems. She also provides Cognitive-behavioral therapy to children and adolescents with anxiety and sleep disorders.

Learn more about Suzanne Thompson, PhD

Melanie Cole: Many children in schools across the country have now heard about the tragic events that happened in Parkland, Florida, and as a result, they may now struggle with their own feelings of fear and confusion and uncertainty. As parents, do we turn off the TV or let the kids watch this coverage? They're getting it from so many different places. My guest today is Dr. Suzanne Thompson. She's a pediatric psychologist at St. Louis Children's Hospital. Welcome to the show. How do we talk to our kids about what they've heard from friends? They see it on TV, they read it on social media after these events occur, we can't help it, it's all over. Their phones go crazy with this stuff.

Dr. Suzanne Thompson, Ph.D.: Exactly. We feel that as horrific as this is, it is a great opportunity and a reminder for us to talk to our kids. We want to listen to them, we want to know what they're hearing, we do want to try to have some input into how our kids are learning about these events. For some children, it really is a good idea to limit exposure as much as you can. We may want to stay informed as adults, but sometimes particularly for children who are more sensitive to some of the details of these horrific stories, it may be best to sometimes turn off the TV. In other situations, it may be helpful to turn off the TV after we watch it and have a discussion and have a dialogue and really understand what our kids are hearing, how they're understanding this and address their concerns.

Melanie: So important. At what age do we begin to talk to kids about these kinds of traumatic events? Kids are getting phones pretty young and if you're a parent who's kept that away from your kids, how early do you discuss these things? Kids can get scared hearing it.

Dr. Thompson: They certainly get scared hearing it and this is where it’s so important to remember that every child is different. Some children already have a little bit of anxiety as part of their temperament and they're a little more cautious, a little more sensitive to bad scary things happening, so for those younger children, we probably do want to wait for them to bring it up or ask a general question – tell me what you know about what's happening lately, what questions do you have about scary things that may be happening. Certainly, for older kids, they are going to have more of those questions. They are going to react very differently and sometimes have very different discussions with their friends, and so it’s just another reminder for us to keep that dialogue open.

Melanie: Now we’ve discussed talking to our kids about this and what age, you're a pediatric psychologist, how does witnessing these violent events harm these children’s mental health, because now they can watch videos of these events, even if they weren’t right there. They can watch the events because other kids film them and put them all over social media.

Dr. Thompson: That's a really good point. Trauma specialists talk about this concept of proximity to a traumatic event that the closer we are to is physically, if we know someone personally, that has more of a detrimental impact on us. We are much more affected in terms of feeling like our basic security, our basic safety, we can trust when we go about our daily routines that we feel safe and secure; that's much more threatened when something is happening close by to us with the fact that some children are more sensitive and will have stronger reactions. You're absolutely right. Now that we have this power of video, it can certainly feel like it is next door to us, even when it is happening hundreds of miles away. I think this is an important opportunity for parents to talk with kids. Sometimes we can be drawn in like a moth to the flame to watching some of these videos and hearing some of these details and really being a part of the scene. Is that helpful? Is that what this particular family finds meaningful or helpful in trying to make peace out of this horrific set of circumstances and being aware that for some children that may do harm?

Melanie: Should parents start these conversations? Do we wait for the child to ask?

Dr. Thompson: Again, I think this is where we need to be clear that every child will react differently depending on their personality. I think it’s fine to check in with kids because as you said, some kids will hear things at school, even younger children, even if I as a parent am limiting exposure to some of this at home, children may still hear things from other sources. Certainly, checking in to say ‘tell me what you've heard about some of the things that have been going on lately?' If a child brings this up, what questions do you have to try to figure that out? Certainly, with older children and teens, I think it’s absolutely fine for us to bring it up.

Melanie: I can't even watch a video of kids getting bullied. These videos are everywhere. How do we as parents manage our own emotional reactions? I was in tears after Parkland and you don’t want your kids to necessarily see or feel your fears, and yet, it’s a great time as you said to discuss things. We have to look to our own internal ability to withstand and be strong.

Dr. Thompson: That is so true. It’s natural for us to be emotional at times. We have compassion, we have empathy, our hearts go out to these families. It does shake us up and this is where it’s important that we are being honest with our kids, but yet, it may not be helpful to say things like ‘this could never happen here’ because we really can't make that guarantee, and that’s commonly what is so upsetting and a punch to the gut for us with our loved children. We really need kids to know that bad things happen but reassure them that many people are working to keep them safe, parents, teachers, community leaders, police are working to keep them safe, and also try to help them put their fears in proportion to the real risk. Children are going to be distracted, they're going to be more anxious unless we can reassure them that they are loved, they are cared for and that our leaders are doing actions to help keep them safe.

Melanie: What are some of the warning signs that parents should pay attention to if a child is having a hard time coping with some of these events? Along those same lines, how do we educate our students to report warning signs of mental issues in other students? Speak about red flags.

Dr. Thompson: That’s a great question and I think a huge shout out to the schools, many of which are doing fantastic initiatives on that to raise awareness of mental health concerns, to educate students, to have both psychologists, school counselors, school social workers, school nurses as well as with teachers and staff to develop those connections with students so when a student starts getting concerned about a friend, they already have a connection with an adult at the school. They can go to that person and say ‘I'm concerned about my friend, here's what I'm seeing, I don’t know what to make of this, what do you think.’ A lot of those warning signs are changes. It may not be a kid or a teen just directly talking about concerns that may not be how that communication is happening.

There may be signs in terms of behavior changes, could be anything from difficulty sleeping, changing in eating patterns, withdrawals, sometimes it’s really a shutting down is how those emotions can be expressed. Certainly, some children will be worrying more, the worry may get in the way of them doing the daily activity, they may try to avoid situations more – those are key warning signs – unusual mood swings, a kid just being more out of control, doing things that would be risky. Complaining of stomach aches or headaches is often a sign, just like adults have more vulnerability to stomach pain and headaches when our system is stressed out when we're having some of those fight or flight reactions, problems concentrating or doing schoolwork, either in school or after school, that's key. It's very hard to be focused and motivated on schoolwork when we’re not feeling safe and secure or when we’re starting to develop some of these adjustment concerns.

Melanie: As far as pediatricians are concerned, how can they educate parents on talking with their kids when tragic events like this occur? When you're talking to parents, giving them the language to use, addressing some of these warning signs, even discussing privately with the child at their well visit because we know that kids get to go into the room when they become teenagers with the doctor by themselves for a little while – what do you want pediatricians to use as language to find out about this child and educate the parents and the whole family in general?

Dr. Thompson: This is where pediatricians have a huge advantage and opportunity to be enormously helpful because of that relationship because they know this child so well and they know these parents so well. They know the parents and the kids who have a little more difficulty talking about hard things and they can be there in that moment to say this is a really good opportunity for us to talk about some things that make us feel frightened that make us not feel safe and secure. They know those parents and families who may fall in the trap of tending to dwell on it a little too much or focus on a little too much in a way that's maybe not meeting the needs of that child and they'll be able to give input and give direction on how to find that balance between offering compassion, doing compassionate acts for families for whom that's important to do, but also reassuring the child and helping that child get a sense of being safe and secure and that it is okay to go about a regular daily business.

Melanie: Tell us about some of the clinical services that St. Louis Children’s Hospital offers and what educational resources for parents are provided by St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Thompson: We’re so fortunate here. We have a fantastic family resource center and they have not only books, but a wealth of brochures, websites, YouTube videos, apps – they have it all for families who want to have more information about these kinds of issues. One example is the American Psychological Association at They have a topic section with summaries of these kinds of concepts about talking with children not just about the tragic events but about other kinds of losses and other kinds of challenges and more on warning signs. Simply calling or going online with the family resource center, explaining your concerns, they will be able to match you up with the types of resources that you are interested in.

Melanie: It’s such important information. Tell us a little bit about 454.TEEN.

Dr. Thompson: 454.TEEN is another fantastic resource we have here. Certainly, our psychologists at SLCH work with our community pediatricians to provide counseling services when needed and we also know that is not the best match for some families. 454.TEEN is a service where a consultant will talk with the family, find out where they live, their insurance, the kinds of concerns and goals that they have for that child, and match them with resources. It’s not just for teens; it’s for kids of all ages. It’s for any type of psychological service, counseling service, psychiatry service, learning based needs – any type of resource that is available, they are the experts. They have that very well organized and are in a position to be able to give families several options for resources. It’s a fantastic service.

Melanie: 454.TEEN is a free service available to families Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thank you so much for being with us today. This is such an important topic. Give us a little wrap up with your best advice about speaking to our children about these traumatic events and what you really what parents to take away from this.

Dr. Thompson: I really want parents to take away that as heartbreaking as these situations are, it is an opportunity for us to communicate our values to our children. How do we make sense of bad things happening? How do we help reassure our children in an open honest way? How do we help them learn that they can come talk to us about their concerns that together we’re a team and we can figure out how to help them feel better? How do we help them function in their daily routines while also having that care and compassion for other people and working together as a family to do our part to make the world a better place?

Melanie: A physician can refer a patient by calling children’s direct physician access line at 1-800-678-HELP. That’s 1-800-678-4357. You're listening to Radio Rounds with St. Louis Children’s Hospital. For more information on resources available at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, you can go to That’s This is Melanie Cole. Thanks so much for listening.