Processing Traumatic Events at Different Ages and Levels of Development

February 16, 2018 - 2:00pm

In the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida adults, young children, and adolescents are struggling with their reactions to this traumatic event. It is considered essential to "talk to children about what they are seeing and hearing, even when they did not directly witness the event." ​Honesty is important in these conversations but what a child needs to know and how to approach this subject changes according to their developmental stage. In other words, depending "on what they can understand and process without heightening their distress."​1 

Processing Trauma 

Traumatic events can have varying effects on an student’s mental health especially in regards to post-traumatic symptoms and the potential disruption of a student's learning and school behavior. When starting the conversation, it is important to first determine what the child knows. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network recommends gently correcting inaccurate information, encouraging children to ask questions, and answering them directly.

Preschool students may increase behaviors like bedwetting, thumb sucking, clinging to parents, and temper tantrums. Some students may become very withdrawn, have trouble falling or staying asleep, and may experience nightmares about the event. Preschoolers tend to do best when adults respond calmly, honestly, in simple language, and with limited detail.

Elementary school students may complain of stomachaches, headaches, or may exhibit a change in behavior such as increased irritability or anger. These students may also show a change in school performance, ask persitent questions, or talk excessively about the traumatic event. Elementary students tend to have a better understanding of the event than preschoolers and may want to talk about the event at length with a trusted adult.

Middle and high school students often feel self-conscious about their emotional responses to the event. They may also feel guilty about the event and express desires for revenge and retribution. The event may even radically shift how students think about the world and shift their relationships with family members, teachers, and classmates. There may be an increase in self-destructive and reckless behaviors along with a change in school performance, attendance and behavior. Adolescents benefit most when adults take time to listen, without judgment, to their thoughts and feelings about the school shooting.

Trauma and Learning

"A traumatic event can seriously interrupt the school routine and the processes of teaching and learning. There are usually high levels of emotional upset, potential for disruptive behavior, or loss of student attendance unless efforts are made to reach out to students and staff with additional information and services. Students traumatized by exposure to violence have been shown to have lower grade point averages, more negative remarks in their cumulative records, and more reported absences from school than other students. They may have increased difficulties concentrating and learning at school and may engage in unusually reckless or aggressive behavior."​2 

In addition to facilitating a discussion about the traumatic event, it can also be helpful to keep children busy, protect them from too much information, emphasize hope and positivity, and ensure parents also receive the support and care they need.

For more resources for schools, parents and caregivers, and youth and families visit:

For more detailed suggestions for facilitating discussions with children affected by a school shooting visit:

For more information on finding the right words to say download the app Help Kids Cope.