Helping Children Cope With Tragedy

These days, our nation wrestles with the fear and emotional uncertainty resulting from violent situations that seemingly occur on a regular basis. As these shootings and attacks flash across our television screens and cell phones, we question how: how could this happen? Who would do such a thing?
For so many adults and children alike, we may feel a loss of stability and threatened security. A child’s understanding of such a frightening event is very personal. Since children operate from the realm of their own experience and egocentricity, they may feel particularly threatened now and believe that bombs could be dropped on them.

If our children don’t view coverage of tragic events on television, they may hear about them from classmates or teachers. How can you as a parent cope with your own anxieties, while reassuring your child that his is safe?

Communicating with children is the key to restoring their security and balance. Here are some ways you can help talk to your child about tragic events.

1. Ask your child questions, and gently encourage him with follow-up questions to help him verbalize his emotions. Let him know that there are no “wrong” feelings, and allow him to share without interruption.

2. Share your own feelings in an illustrative manner to show your child how to express his feelings. Sentences such as “I was so frightened that I felt the same way you feel when you get into an elevator sometimes and your stomach drops” helps describe feelings literally. This helps give your child concrete references for his emotions.

3. Try to maintain your family’s daily routine. The confusing emotions surrounding a tragedy can be destabilizing for children, so it is a good idea to restore a sense of normalcy as quickly as possible.

4. Partner with your child to create a family emergency plan. This can restore balance and control to a child’s psyche. If he can feel involved in creating his own security, he will feel empowered. After a plan is invoked, practice and rehearse it with your child through modeling and role-playing.

5. Take positive action. Remember Aristotle’s advice: that action makes one feel in control. Consider doing something positive with your child, such as giving blood, writing letters, or sending care packages to the relief agencies. This gives your child something constructive to do with his emotions, and that alone can lower anxiety.

6. Take cues from your child, and provide extra security to remind him that he is protected. Create child-centered activities such as reading and sharing time together. Even something as simple as putting a night light in your child’s room can provide much comfort.

Remember that just as you should communicate with your child in a way that is appropriate for his age and understanding, your child may react to the anxieties of a tragedy differently based on his own history (if he has been in a hospital before, or if he has recently experienced the loss of a loved one), as well as age.

Young children may express fears of separation and attachment as anxiety mounts, whereas older children may become more aggressive and express anger as a way to control their feelings of fear and helplessness. With the pressure we are all under, social distancing and watching our economy slow down, there is a resurge of PTSD in homes around the country. If necessary, you should reach out to a professional to help guide and support you and your child.

Finally, this is a time when you can and should be overgenerous with hugs and affection. Don’t worry about spoiling your child; you cannot spoil him with love. And love is what he needs to feel and witness during these times of tragedy.