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How to talk to your children about violent disasters

Understanding violent situations can be difficult for adults and even more so for children. As we all try and process what happened on Sunday night in Las Vegas...

Understanding violent situations can be difficult for adults and even more so for children.

As we all try and process what happened on Sunday night in Las Vegas, it can be hard to explain to children what is going on without frightening them.

To help parents and teacher navigate their way through talking to children about mass shootings or disasters, WQAD news 8 talked with a parenting expert about ways to help their children understand what’s going on in the world around them.

Julia Cook is a former school counselor, turned child and parenting expert and children’s author. Cook travels the country talking to elementary children about dozens of life topics and experiences and has gathered research from experts across the world on how to talk to your children about violent situations and disasters.

She then takes that research from experts and turns them into children’s books to help kids understand in their language. Cook’s books are research-based and often partners with her non-profit and Michele Gay, founder of Safe and Sound: A Sandy Hook Initiative to give parents and educators a way to explain the unexplained. Her books can help assure children that through love, empathetic understanding, preparation, and truthful effective communication, they can stand strong, even during uncontrollable events.

“It’s kind of trial and error. You don’t want to traumatize a kid but you don’t want them walking around scared to death either. You want to be proactive rather than reactive,” said cook.

Here are tips Cook has compiled to help parents know how to talk to their children about violent situations.


  • Remain calm and reassuring. Create a place where children are comfortable talking and asking questions.
  • Always answer a child’s questions truthfully with simple answers.  You don’t need to go into a lot of detail, but lying to your children or making up facts could confuse them and could create trust issues in the future.
  • Be consistent with your responses. You may be asked to repeat your answers several times but repetitive answers are reassuring your child’s “need to know” and building upon their sense of security.
  • Keep a routine. Children often feel out of control when disasters occur. Keeping with a familiar routine is important for children to feel secure.
  • Acknowledge and normalize your child’s thoughts, feelings and reactions. Help children understand why they feel the way they do.
  • Encourage kids to talk about disaster related events on their terms. Never force a child to answer a question or talk about an incident until he/she is ready.
  • Reassure your child that many people out there are helping those who are hurting. You and your child could make a card for someone who is suffering. Giving to those in need of support allows a child to feel like he/she can make a difference.
  • Keep your child away from watching or listening to sensitive material where a disaster is being discussed and replayed. Sensationalizing the events that have occurred will upset and confuse our child later.
  • Promote positive coping and problem-solving skills. You are your child’s coping instructor. Your children talk note of how you respond to local and national events. They also may be listening to every world you say when you discuss these events with other adults.
  • Emphasize children’s resiliency. Most children, even those who are exposed to trauma, are quite resilient.
  • Children who are preoccupied with questions and concerns about safety should be evaluated by a trained mental health professional. If you child suffers from sleep disturbances, anxiety, reoccurring fears about death or severe separation anxiety from parents, contact your school counselor and/or pediatrician
  • Strengthen friendship and peer support. By fostering supportive relationships, there is strength in numbers.
  • Take care of your own needs. To be there for others, you must take care of yourself.
  • Advanced preparation and immediate response will help with healing and coping. All schools have safety plans in place that are continually being evaluated and updated. Explain to your child that is a good thing.


“The hardest thing in the world as a parent is to be honest with your kid when it comes to something ugly. We want to tell them what we want them to hear and not what’s really going on. There is a way to say things to your kids that is appropriate,” added Cook.

The ant hill disaster, by Julia Cook, is a helpful way to discuss tragedies like mass shootings and extreme weather events with children.

To learn more about Cook and discover her many children’s books, visit: www.juliacookonline.com

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