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How to Help Kids Cope with Tragedy

In light of the mass shooting inside an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, Mighty Mommy discusses some ways parents can help their children cope with tragic events. 

By
Cheryl Butler,
December 17, 2012

How to Help Kids Cope with Tragedy

Writing in the aftermath of the unthinkable tragedy in Newtown, CT is eerily surreal.  To learn that 26 innocent lives, 20 of them precious young children, were killed in a shooting massacre in their very own elementary school is just incomprehensible.

As a mom of 8 kids, the youngest of whom is 7, I’m grappling with immense grief and disbelief that sweet, trusting children, as well as their devoted teachers and school staff, could be so brutally murdered. A tragedy of this magnitude is horrific, but the fact that so many young children were the victims takes the pain and horror to a whole new level.  

I am not a certified mental health professional, but I am a heartbroken mom as well as a very active member in my children’s school system, so I would like to share some guidelines the psychologists in my hometown are using to help parents answer their children’s tough questions about this dreadful event.  

How to Help Kids Handle a Traumatic Event

The consistent advice is that above all else, you need to have a conversation with your child and make sure they feel their fears are heard and understood. 

Talking about news events with kids happens in everyday moments. Children ask questions in the car on the way to school, in between pushes on the swings, and just when you're trying to rush out the door.  In one breath, they'll ask about a range of topics — from the weather, to the president, to scientific phenomena, to the latest war.  With the continued news coverage about the Newtown shootings, kids are sure to have many questions about not just the tragedy, but also how it could affect them in their own school.

Step 1: Find out what your child knows 

When a sensitive or scary news topic comes up, ask an open-ended question to find out your child already knows. "What have you heard about it?" works well because it encourages your child to tell you know what they’re thinking and give you a baseline for what information holes you need to fill.

Step 2: Explain simply 

Give children the information they need to know in a way that makes sense to them, considering their age and experience. At times, a few sentences are enough, while in other instances, kids want to go into more detail.  

The American Psychological Association website has a tip sheet for parents to help them address kids' concerns. According to the APA, parents should acknowledge to children that bad things do happen, but also reassure them that many people are working to keep them safe, including their parents, teachers, and local police. 

Young children may communicate their fears through play or drawings. Elementary school children will use a combination of play and talking to express themselves. Adolescents are more likely to have the skills to communicate their feelings and fears verbally.

Adults should be attentive to a child's concerns, but also try to help the children put their fears into proportion to the real risk. Again, it is important to reassure children that the adults in their lives are doing everything they can to make their environment — school, home, and neighborhood — safe for them.

Step 3: Know the warning signs

Most children are quite resilient and will return to their normal activities and personality relatively quickly, but parents should be alert to any signs of anxiety that might suggest that a child or teenager might need more assistance. Such indicators could be a change in the child's school performance, changes in relationships with peers and teachers, excessive worry, school refusal, sleeplessness, nightmares, headaches or stomachaches, or loss of interest in activities that the child used to enjoy. Also remember that every child will respond to trauma differently. Some will have no ill effects; others may suffer an immediate and acute effect. Still others may not show signs of stress until sometime after the event.

Dr. Marianne Wamboldt, a physician at Children's Hospital Colorado and Dr. Jeffrey Dolgan, Senior Psychologist in Behavioral Health at Children's Hospital Colorado provided these tips on how parents can help their children deal with news of school shootings:

  • Decrease media availability. Kids don’t understand the process behind a story they see on the news. Every time they see coverage of the crisis, they perceive it as happening again. Parents should be sensitive to this and limit the amount of crisis-related media their kids can access.

  • Display stability. Kids will look to their parents for cues on how to react to a crisis. If parents are anxious, particularly about their child returning to school after a shooting, the children are likely to be nervous as well. Parents should project stability and calmness in relation to the event.

  • Be open to kids’ fears. After a crisis, kids are most likely to fear the possibility of fear returning. They are less afraid of the event happening again than they are of re-experiencing the anxiety of that day. Kids need to tell their story, so parents should give them plenty of time and space to do so.

  • Be prepared for questions. Many questions kids ask will be difficult, if not impossible to answer. Parents should explain that a school shooting is a random event and discuss steps the school will take to ensure students’ safety. Remind kids that the teachers are there to protect them.

 

Honor the Victims as a Family

One final thought: We need to remember the victims and their grieving families and continue to educate our kids on conflict resolution at a young age so that when they grow older, they can express their feelings and talk about what’s hurting them before they are in crisis mode. This weekend, my family discussed ways that we could honor the victims by taking some type of positive action such as volunteering in a soup kitchen together, or planting trees in a local park that future generations can enjoy, or donating gifts to local children’s hospitals during the holidays in memory of one of the children who were killed in Newtown.  

Kids do need to understand that bad things do happen to nice people, but I believe we can also teach them that families and communities come together during a crisis to comfort one another, share our strength, and to find ways to focus on the good in our lives knowing that each one of us can make a positive difference even during the most difficult of times.

 

 

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