Helping Children Cope with Tragedy
by Molly Dehrey Buckman, LCSW and Nora Frazin, AM, under the direction of Ben Kessler, LCSW
Parents today are faced with raising their children in a society where school and neighborhood violence is not uncommon. You may be asking yourself, how do I help myself and my children make sense of such tragic events? There is no way to shield children from the emotional pain or fear that they face in times like this. What you can do is learn about signs which may signal distress in your child and respond by offering tools to help them manage the anxiety that they are experiencing.
Young children are in the process of developing emotional vocabulary and awareness, so they are more limited than adults in their ability to be in tune with how they feel. They often express feelings through their behaviors rather than words.
Behaviors that may signal anxiety include regression (displaying behaviors that are more typical of a younger child), developing new fears, separation anxiety, physical or relational aggression, difficulty sleeping, hesitancy to try new things, imaginative play revolving around the event or a scary topic, or other changes in the child’s typical behavior.
If you notice any of these behaviors or have the sense that your child is going through a difficult time, here are some ways you can respond:
Be aware of and manage your own feelings. Children are very perceptive and can pick up on the feelings of adults. It is important, when discussing difficult topics with your children, that you have taken time separately to process the information on your own or with a supportive person in your life. If your child senses your emotions around it, they may absorb your emotions rather than tuning into the conversation that you’re having with them. Be prepared to have a discussion with your child in a calm manner.
Follow your child’s lead. If you notice that the child seems frightened or they talk about something scary that is going on, create a space for them to share their feelings. Provide opportunities for them to ask questions. Be prepared to answer questions in an age appropriate manner. The younger the child’s age, the more brief and simplified the answer should be. Ask the teacher in school if the child has displayed any worrisome behaviors or expressed fear, sadness, or anger.
Be reassuring. Preschool aged children are very egocentric, which means that their main focus will be on how the event will affect them. It is important to emphasize to them the unusual nature of these events and assure them that they are in the care of people who will keep them safe. Remind them of their daily routine at home and school and how they will continue to do the things they do every day.
Help children cope with their feelings. You can help your children express their feelings by reflecting back to them the feelings that they are communicating to you with their words or behavior. You can acknowledge their feelings by naming them. You can support them by accepting their feelings and not trying to change them. You can help them express their feelings by drawing, playing, or tell stories about what they are experiencing.
Elementary School-Aged Children
In school-age children, an anxious response may show up as fearfulness or tension, but may also look angry or oppositional. It is normal for children to experience anxiety in the course of growing up, but as a parent it can be difficult to know how best to help a child whose anxiety is triggered by events that are unsettling even to adults.
Validate your child’s emotions. Avoid telling children that their fears are silly or that there is nothing to worry about. Listen to your children’s concerns and provide straightforward, age-appropriate answers to their questions—with younger children, keep explanations simple and use terms they understand. Don’t worry about knowing all the answers or saying “the right thing”—remember that the goal behind most questions is to get reassurance.
Keep the door open to talk without forcing the conversation. With older children, you may start by asking what they have heard about recent events and gently correcting any misconceptions. If they do not want to talk about it, there is no need to pressure them. Just let them know that you are there for them if and when they are ready to talk, and make sure to keep checking in regularly.
Help your child take action. Volunteering in the community reinforces the message that most people are good and mean well. Connecting with the wider community and offering supports to others can help reduce children’s sense of isolation and regain a sense of control in the wake of scary events.
Share that you feel worried sometimes, too, and explain how you cope. Being honest with your children about your own worries can be helpful, as long as you choose your words carefully. Share your own coping strategies and help your children generate their own, like taking deep breaths or doing a relaxing activity. This sends the message that worries are normal and that you can talk about them together—but remember that your child is not your confidante.
Seek Out Support for Yourself
It is important for you to feel supported during stressful times as well. Your child will look to you to model how to respond, so taking time to process your own worries is crucial.