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Jeanette Yoffe is frequently requested to speak in the media on many different topics related to Adoption and Foster Care. She speaks, as a former foster youth and adoptee expert, community leader, as well as educating and advocating to foster change in the child welfare system today.

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Helping Children Process Scary and Terrifying Events by Jeanette Yoffe M.F.T.

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

Definition of Scary: striking, terrifying, surprising and causing intense fear. On Wikipedia:

Terrorism is defined as a type of criminal organization. Terrorism, in its broadest sense, is the use of intentional violence and fear to achieve political or ideological aims. The term is used in this regard primarily to refer to intentional violence during peacetime or in the context of war against non-combatants.

It is wise for parents to understand that children are resilient and will be able to overcome scary events. However, children can become traumatized when a parent is absent emotionally, psychologically, and/or not acknowledging the overwhelming experience. Just because your child is not talking about a scary event, does not mean they are not actively thinking about it!
What mitigates trauma for a child, is having a kind, gentle, nurturing parent who is able to listen and join in, attune to their child’s "internal" scary experience, to help them process what happened. This is how we learn to tolerate experiences, and move through them. Also called tolerable stress. If a parent does not provide this care, a child can experience too much stress, also called "toxic stress" which results in higher levels of cortisol, which resets their stress thermostat, and makes it more difficult for a child to naturally calm their nervous system down on their own. It's not that they won't be able to, their nervous system just can't."

What to Say to Children by Age Group

When it comes to talking to kids about difficult subjects like terrorism, simple and short is usually the best policy.

  • Preschoolers – “A group of villainous and criminal people, who don't follow rules or laws, chose to hurt other people. Now, there are lots of people helping the ones who got hurt and there are police officers working hard to keep them safe.”

  • School-Age Kids – “A group of villainous and criminal people hurt some people and some of them died. There aren’t that many villainous and criminal people people in the world but every once in a while, a group of people called "terrrorists" does something terrible to "try and get their way." Fortunately, there are a lot of police officers, doctors, and other people who are helping to take care of people who got hurt and they’re working hard to keep them safe.”

  • Teenagers – “There was a terrorist attack. What have you heard about it? How do you feel about this crisis in the middle east?” Let your teen do a lot of the talking. If you’re going to talk about religious or political motives, make sure you do so in a way that doesn’t cause your teen to think certain groups of people are all bad. Give Facts: Terrorism, in its broadest sense, is the use of intentional violence and fear to achieve political or ideological aims. The term is used in this regard primarily to refer to intentional violence during peacetime or in the context of war against non-combatants.

After 9/11 the 9/11 Memorial Foundation pointed out 2 very important things when talking about terrorism:

Acknowledge That We Don’t Have All the Answers It’s all right not to know the answer to every question. Terrorism is a very complex subject. If you can’t answer your child’s question, be honest. Use the opportunity to model yourself as a learner, and explore the question together. Just like adults, children may also pose rhetorical questions—they may be looking for someone to acknowledge their concerns rather than provide an answer.

Be Specific It can be easy to make generalizations when discussing terrorism. Avoid talking in broad strokes, comparing the suffering of one person to another, or assigning blame to an entire group. Highlight specific stories of the survivors, victims, or first responders to help humanize the event, and avoid stereotypes and simplifications. Brittanica Kids has a good description of Terrorism, which you can read with your child CLICK HERE A MUST-watch film. This film is validating and helps parents understand and focus on what is necessary during this vulnerable time.

It is normal for a child to have acute stress symptoms after witnessing and experiencing a scary event, this can last for one month, such as disorganized speech, startle responses to loud noises and fast movements, difficulty sleeping, easily agitated or tearful, nervousness, and hyper-vigilance- a constant scanning of their environment to seek safety. *If symptoms last for more than one month, it is strongly suggested to work with a mental health professional. There is no age that is too early to check in with children about exposure to violence or traumatic events.

How to Be a Therapeutic Parent” to your child during Times of stress:

1. Calm your own neurophysiological reaction and breathe, slow down and be patient with yourself. Learn How to P.A.C.E yourself HERE

2. Combat your anxious thoughts with compassion. Reframe your experience by building your inner strength with affirmations such as: “You got this. You will grow stronger working through this together." "You can feel scared too. You will be ok and your child will be alright.” “Even though this is overwhelming, you can still have love and compassion for yourself.”

3. Be an OWL to your child: Observe Watch and Listen, pay attention to your child’s non-verbal cues for signs of stress: Confused kids will do confusing things.”

4. How to Talk about a Shooting with a young child:

1. Instead of telling a very young child (under 5) that someone was “shot” or “killed,” you can simply say some people were “hurt.” List of BOOKS Explaining Death to Children HERE

2. Ask open ended questions. Be curious about what they know or have seen and/or heard and what they told themselves about what they saw? What was their interpretation and meaning? “What did you see or hear?” “How did you feel about what we saw on the news? “What did it make you think about?” If you don’t have an answer create a Question Box to hold the questions that are hard to answer.

3. Empathize their feelings and validate their concerns

Empathize: “I understand this feels scary. It’s ok to feel scared about this.”

Validate: “It is scary. Let’s talk about it.” List of BOOKS for Processing Fear, Worry & Anxiety HERE

4. Reassure them they are safe and Limit exposure to news. Kids feel better when they know how a situation is being handled, so explain to them what adults are doing to keep things safe. “You are safe here at home. We can show you all the ways we keep our home safe i.e. security camera, locked doors and windows." "You are safe at school. We know when the first bell rings the doors are locked and people are only allowed in by appointment. There is a security guard on campus at all times. Because of this there are a lot of helpers keeping us safe.”

“We have a lot of love and helpers around us keeping us safe in our neighborhood. We have a neighborhood watch in our community. If anyone sees anything suspicious, they report it to the police.”

5. Provide coping skills for externalizing feelings. Create a coping skills bag:

6. Provide Sensory Comfort via the senses, soft touch, soft sound, soft lights, comforting smells and tastes. Soft touch, and plenty of hugs. List of STRESS RELIEF Toys and Games HERE

7. Keep your Routine. After you’ve given them plenty of time to formulate their questions, express their feelings, it’s important to go back to your regular routine. Routine is deeply comforting for children.

8. Allow retelling of the “scary story” which is part of recycling the information and make sense of what happened. This is something that’s going to keep coming up, so be sure to let your kids know that you’re there for them whenever they need to talk — and keep checking in proactively, too. This story is helpful for children ages 3-9 talking about scary emotions:

Suggested Points to Emphasize When Talking to Children About Safety in School from the National Association of School Psychologist Recommended:

· Schools are safe places. School staff works with parents and public safety providers (local police and fire departments, emergency responders, hospitals, etc.) to keep you safe. The school building is safe because … (cite specific school procedures).

· We all play a role in the school safety. Be observant and let an adult know if you see or hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable, nervous or frightened.

· “If you see something, say something.” slogan came the US Dept of Homeland Security

· Although there is no absolute guarantee that something bad will never happen, it is important to understand the difference between the possibility of something happening and probability that it will affect you (our school community).

· Senseless violence is hard for everyone to understand. Doing things that you enjoy, sticking to your normal routine, and being with friends and family help make us feel better and keep us from worrying about the event.

· Sometimes people do bad things that hurt others. They may be unable to handle their anger, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or suffering from mental illness. It is important for all of us to know how to get help if we feel really upset or angry and to stay away from drugs and alcohol.

· Stay away from guns and other weapons. Tell an adult if you know someone has a gun. Access to guns is one of the leading risk factors for deadly violence.

· Violence is never a solution to personal problems. A solution is focusing on being part of the solution by participating in anti-violence programs at school or community, learning conflict mediation skills, and seeking help from an adult if a peer or person is struggling with anger, depression, or other emotions they cannot control.

Lastly, provide hope, and inspiration to your child. Watch this video of children and teens who have stood up to violence and are helping to make the world a safer and more peaceful place :

If you are in the state of California and would like to speak with a mental health professional please contact me at


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Thanks for sharing this wonderful post. This was a really great post.

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