Frightening public events are reported widely in the media and can cause children to worry about themselves and others.

Whether a child has witnessed a frightening event or knows someone involved, or has heard about it in the media, it is normal for them to be worried after something scary has happened; many will show some upset, sadness or fearfulness in the short term and children who have directly witnessed or have been bereaved through a traumatic event are likely to show a stronger reaction.

How might a child react to a frightening event?

Each child will respond in their own way, but this will vary according to their age and level of understanding, as well as their cultural background, personality, previous experience and the support they have available. It will also depend on the opportunities they have to talk to others and make sense of what has happened.

Common responses might include sleep difficulties or nightmares; feeling fearful or anxious; flashbacks (if they have witnessed the event); changes in appetite; physical symptoms like tummy aches; more emotional behaviour; and poor concentration and a lack of interest in usual activities.

Younger children may become clingy and be anxious about being apart from parents or carers. They might think that they were somehow responsible for what happened and need reassurance that this was not the case. Some younger children might re-enact what happened through play, which is normal and their way of trying to make sense of what has happened. Such responses might be immediate or delayed and show up later as they process what has happened. Reassure your child that it’s normal to feel upset, scared, or angry or to have any number of mixed feelings. Most children will return to their usual behaviour after a few weeks, particularly if they have had the opportunity to talk about what has happened. In some cases, children may develop resilience after witnessing a frightening event which can help them to cope with other challenging life events.

Whatever your child’s reaction, letting them know that their feelings are normal and to be expected can be reassuring and can help to reduce stressful feelings.

Why is my child re-enacting what happened?

After witnessing or hearing about a frightening event, it is normal for some younger children to re-enact what has happened in their play, for instance repeatedly smashing their toy cars together after they have experienced a road accident or stabbing their dolls after hearing about an attack on the television. Whilst this might be disconcerting for adults, this can be a child’s way of trying to make sense of what has happened and it is not something to be worried about in the short term. Children can flit very quickly between periods of intense distress and calm, one moment sobbing and seemingly inconsolable and the next asking if they can go and play or watch television. This is entirely normal and is their way of coping with intense situations. Watch our short animated film, Puddle Jumping, for more on how young children cope with difficult feelings.

Should I talk to my child about what has happened?

Sometimes adults try to protect children by avoiding any discussion about the event. They worry about further upsetting their children or making things worse. However, children and young people usually find it helpful to talk about what has happened. Talking about the things that have frightened them can enable children to make sense of what has happened and help them become less fearful and more likely to share how they are feeling.

Adults can help by gauging when a child is ready to talk and sensitively choosing the right moment. As one child told us:

It helps to know why everyone in the family is sad and worried because when you don’t know what is happening, you can’t help thinking it is your fault.

What should I say to my child?

Make time to explain to your child what has happened using age-appropriate language which is suitable for their level of understanding.

Be open and honest even if some of the details are difficult but don’t overload with detailed information as this can be overwhelming. A frightening event can be even more difficult to cope with for a child if they sense adults are reluctant to answer their questions.

Explain things in a simple, direct way. A child does not need all the details at once and can gradually take on more information over time and will ask if they need to know more.

Tell your child that these events are extremely rare and that’s why we hear about them on the news when they happen. Try to avoid talking about 'bad people' as this can be particularly frightening for children. Refer instead to 'bad acts' or 'sad events'. Give lots of calm reassurance.

For younger children, you can say something like:

'Something really sad happened in London today. A man drove his car into a crowd and some people were killed. There is a lot on the television about it because these kinds of things are unusual and don't happen very often. Lots of people are talking about it because it is so sad that it happened.'

Older children may have more questions and need more details about the event.

What can I do to help my child cope with what has happened?

Keep to daily routines such as school, leisure activities, bedtimes and mealtimes. Getting back to 'normal' is reassuring as it makes life feel consistent and predictable and helps children feel safe and secure. Try to manage your own anxiety so that you can provide calm reassurance to your child about their own safety.

Give your child opportunities to talk about what has happened and encourage them to ask questions, without forcing them to talk. It can also help to find ways for them to express their feelings through art and craft activities. You could make a 'scream box' for your child to shout into; you might provide a cushion for your child to punch or encourage them to try something physical such as stamping feet or running and jumping to release any feelings of anger. Older children may find doing something physical like playing football or going for a walk helpful. Finding time to do fun things together can also be helpful.

Let them know their reactions are normal and are to be expected after such an event and that it is most likely that the intensity of their feelings will reduce over time.

Give your child plenty of reassurance, offer more hugs than usual and find something comforting such as a blanket or soft toy to encourage feelings of security.

After a frightening event, how can I help my child with worries about themself and others?

Children can worry that they or someone close to them might also be hurt or involved in a frightening event. Although you cannot offer definite reassurance that this will not happen, it can be helpful to stress the rarity of such events. If a child starts to ask more about death and dying, there are many books available that can help with a frank discussion and introduce the topic in an age-appropriate way. If they engage with social media, adolescents and teenagers will be more aware of the realities of life, but much of what they hear may be sensationalised. A death by murder or manslaughter reinforces the feeling that the world is a scary and dangerous place and repeated reference to such events can give the impression that they are more common occsurrences than is really the case. It is important to reassure your teenager that these incidents are relatively rare and that is why we hear about them in the media. See our resource for more on explaining to a child that someone has died.

How can I help my child cope with frightening world events?

If a large-scale disaster such as an earthquake or a terrorist attack has happened in a particular area or country, and is shown in the media, this may be discussed at your child’s school. You can ask your child’s school how the topic is being managed within school and what information has been shared so that you can discuss it with your child and address any anxieties they may have. You may find it helpful to direct your child’s school to our online resources for schools.

How can I look after myself after a frightening event?

If you are struggling with your own reactions to a frightening event, seek some support for yourself. Children are quick to pick up on the distress of adults around them even if the adults are trying to hide their feelings.

How can I get support for my child after a frightening event?

Many conflicting and mixed emotions are to be expected in the short term after a frightening event has happened and most children will show some signs of upset. However, if your child continues to be very distressed over a lasting period, or if their behaviour or emotional state is affecting everyday activities or causing concern, you may find it helpful to discuss it with your Health Visitor or GP. They may be able to advise you on who can provide some further support.

Visit our page: How we can support you for more on our services.

You can also call our Helpline 0800 02 888 40, email [email protected], or use Live Chat on our website.