Children and Exposure to Terror: The 3 Cs of Coping

This blog was jointly written by “The Older Dad,” Dr. Kevin D. Arnold, and by Ms. Theresa Gaser, MSSA, LISW-S of Trinity Family Counseling, Westerville, Ohio

According to the VA, children who are exposed to higher amounts of TV coverage of a disaster develop more stressful reactions. Terrorism and disasters can easily alter children’s lives like the ripples of waves in a pond impact on the shore.  Given that, what might we expect after children experience traumatic events by watching TV coverage or hearing about them as adults discuss those events?

General Impact of Observing Trauma

Any child old enough to laugh is old enough to experience the effects of trauma.  Children do not need to be a direct witness of the trauma to feel terror.  They can hear about a shooting and worry that it will happen to them or others they care about.  A child can feel excited to see one parent and terrified that they will never see the other parent again once they drive away. Children do not have to understand what is happening in order for trauma to occur.

Developmental Implications

Younger children (about 6 to 12 years) process information using more concrete ways of thinking than do older, teenage children.  For example, before about age 8, children are often mislead by the height of water in a glass as an indication of the amount of water in a glass (higher = more).  Understanding this concrete thinking can help explain some subtle symptoms of distress in children who have watched several hours of TV coverage of the Las Vegas shooting.

Experiencing Fear by Watching

Children easily react to watching violence with the same type of anxiety we might otherwise expect from being the victim of that violence. We all normally react with anxiety watching others be harmed, and children are no different. However, adults can abstractly reason about the probabilities of mass shootings occurring in their hometown; but children will gravitate to the physical features of the situation in which the shooting occurs. They will use the concrete reasoning of the “where” and “what” and build ideas about risk based on those real-life features. In other words, they may easily think that if we go to a concert in an open area we will get shot.

Hypervigilance in Childhood

Children can easily develop increased cautiousness when around large crowds after watching mass shooting TV coverage.  When children see crowds of people screaming, it automatically makes children fearful.  It’s a natural trigger leading children to scan situations to identify threats to their safety.  We can watch children to see  if their “radar” is turned up a bit too much, especially if they scan, and overreact, to situations that remind them of a recent terror event reported in the media.

Phobic Reactions to Similar Situations

Learned fear responses generalize past the specific situations in which they are occur, and often emerge in  similar, but the same settings.  For example, in the case of the Las Vegas mass shooting, children easily may show signs of phobic fear and desperate avoidance when in crowded open spaces or near tall buildings.  We can be mindful of children acting fearful in malls, open-air markets, or  downtown metropolitan areas.

When Should I Be Concerned

When a child has been exposed to a horrific events, whether it be in person, through media outlets, or by hearing others talk about it, they may develop secondary stress.   Children show signs of secondary stress through increased difficulty in completing school work, problems concentration, or unusual forgetfulness. They can appear anxious or agitated, and may appear more “clingy” than normal.  Children will sometimes refuse to go anywhere that reminds them of what they saw or heard about that reminds them of the tragedy.  These can all be signs of their efforts to cope with fear, even if their behaviors don’t seem sensible to us grown-ups.

The 3 Cs: What to Do when Children Show Signs of Secondary Stress

There are several useful strategies to use when we see our children reacting with secondary stress.  We can think of these as the 3 Cs:  Comfort, Conversation, and Commitment.


Provide comfort for children through shared meals, planned family time, laughter and engaging in activities that are relaxing and pleasant. We can rely on children’s resilience by remembering that most children will resolve their anxiety within a few months if they do not become re-exposed to the trauma.  We show them the safety of our own self-assurance by not over-reacting to their fears. Instead, we can model how to remain calm by talking about feelings through creating a parent-child dialog. It is important for our children to know we are there for them, and that they are not alone.


When we start those dialogs, we create a venue for validation and empathy.  We turn away from avoiding fear by leaning into a conversation, offering realistic reassurance by expressing our understanding of their fears.  Often, asking thoughtful questions and listening carefully to the things children say to us is great medicine all on its own.  We all benefit by having our emotions heard and embraced, even when our ideas (“There might be a bad person up/out there!”) don’t ring true.

When children react with fear can become a great opportunity to teach emotional intelligence skills: a) label their emotions to help them think them through; b) empathize with gentle words about times we’ve been afraid;  and c) model problem solving by focusing on the safety of current circumstances. By using the conversation, we help them manage (rather than avoid) their fears.  We can help children learn that fear is not a scary feeling.


Of course we all experience trauma when a man shoots people from hotel window.  But after a week, many of us, including our children, may still experience fear. Ways to help children cope  include showing them the horrific event has ended: creating the framework of “that was then, but this is now.”  When we make a commitment to be a good example of how people cope with fears, our children learn from that example.  Often children confuse what they saw or heard (a past event) with the here-and-now.  We can help them tell a story about what happened (“What scared you the most when it happened?”) and then move the story into the present (“What is scary now?”).  When we tell the present story, we can highlight the concrete features of their world that make it a safe place. In our conversation, we can ask questions to encourage children to tell you what makes them feel safe. Our commitment to coping (rather than avoiding) teaches them to how to change the fear narrative (“I am not safe”) to a coping with fear narrative (“I can do things to help me feel safe” or “I can do these things to help me when I do not feel safe.”).

The End of the Story

Helping children during difficult times can be hard because we must both manage our own feelings and focus on theirs simultaneously. To help us be successful in helping children, we can rely on the capacity of children to “bounce back.” Resilience in childhood exists as an ongoing resource for coping. It is important to keep in mind that “Children have the resilience to outlive their suffering if given a chance.” Ishmael Beah


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