How to Help Children Cope With Tragedy

Today the nation wrestles with the fear and emotional uncertainty resulting from yesterday’s Boston marathon explosions. We question how: how could this happen? Who would do such a thing? And, 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 parents cope with their own anxieties while reassuring their children that they are 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 them with follow-up questions to help them verbalize their emotions. Let them know that there are no “wrong” feelings, and allow them to share without interruption.

2. Share your own feelings in an illustrative manner to show them how they can express their 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 them concrete references for their 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 children to create a family emergency plan. This can restore balance and control to a child’s psyche. If they feel involved in creating their own security, they will feel empowered. After a plan is invoked, practice and rehearse it with your children 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 children such as giving blood, writing letters, or sending care packages to the relief agencies. This gives your child something constructive to do with their emotions, and that alone can lower anxiety.

6. Take cues from your child, and provide extra security to remind them they are 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 their age and understanding, your child may react to the anxieties of a tragedy differently based on their own history (if they have been in a hospital before, or if they have recently experienced 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. If necessary, parents should reach out to a professional to help guide and support themselves and their children as well.

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