After a tragedy strikes, it can be hard to cope and you may feel helpless. But your child will need your support understanding and coping with the tragedy, too.
Tragedies, such as natural disasters or violence like mass shootings or terrorist attacks, can be incredibly difficult for children to understand. This lack of understanding can lead to severe anxiety, stress and even depression. Although it can be difficult to discuss these topics with kids, you need to be there for them and be supportive of any questions they may have.
In this article, we will discuss how to help children cope with tragedy, ways to start the conversation when it involves tough subject matters, and the importance of being there for your children when tragedies occur.
Before we begin, here are some quick tips for parents:
- Always be totally open, honest and transparent when it comes to discussing tragedy or disaster.
- Make sure to provide comfort and reassurance that your child is safe whenever you discuss any type of tragedy with them.
- Do your absolute best to continue maintaining daily routines even after a tragedy occurs. This provides your child with stability and helps them feel safe.
- Encourage conversation and expression of the child’s feelings. You can do this through talking, playing, drawing or art, and many forms of self-expression.
- Make a family emergency plan and teach your children about said plan from a young age. That way, if a tragedy occurs, they know what to do and how to better handle it. This is particularly useful for events such as natural disasters.
How to Start Difficult Conversations with a Child
Starting conversations with your child about tragedy can be difficult to approach.
That said, children often do not understand why tragedies occur, and have questions about what happened. Their questions need to be answered so that they can heal, feel safe and learn to cope. If these conversations are avoided, the silence can make tragic events even more scary for kids. Plus, they may never fully learn how to cope as an adult when tragedy strikes.
Consider prime times of day to discuss difficult situations with your child, such as before or after dinner, after school, or on a Saturday afternoon when they are relaxing at home. Begin by asking what he or she already knows about the tragedy at hand, and if they have any concerns or questions about it. Let your child lead the conversation, so that they feel comfortable discussing the subject with you.
Ways to Explain Tragedy to a Child
When it comes to explaining tragic events to a child, your approach will vary depending on what the tragic event is, and what age your child is.
However, with every age group and level of tragedy, you’ll want to make sure to keep eye contact with the child. Try to get down to your child’s eye level, speak in a calm and composed voice, and use words your child understands. Explain what happened, and that no matter what, you will protect and continue caring for your child. For older children, such as pre-teens and teenagers, use words of comfort, but take their age into consideration, and speak with them in a mature manner. Also, always encourage children to share their worries with you. Listen carefully to your child’s misconceptions, misinformation and any underlying fears they are experiencing. Provide thorough and accurate information in return.
Speaking with Preschool Age Children
Some signs of fear in children at a preschool age include:
- Increased bed-wetting
- Reverting back to thumb sucking or baby talk
- Fear of sleeping alone
- Significant stomach aches or cramps
- Complaints of headache
- Reluctant to go to school
It is important to recognize these signs and address them. Remember, your child isn’t being “bad”, they are simply confused and feeling afraid. You can help them cope with their fears by reassuring your young children that they are safe and providing comfort. Discuss the child’s fears and help them understand that you’re here for them, and they have nothing to be afraid of. Extra physical contact, such as a few more hugs per day, snuggles on the couch, and reading a happy book in bed before they fall asleep can help them feel comforted, and take their mind off of things during this difficult time.
Another way to help your young children cope is by better understanding their feelings about the tragedy. Discuss questions they have, and provide loving and comforting answers. You can work on the structure of a child’s schedule to further provide stability in their daily lives.
Speaking with Grade-School Age Children
During their grade school years, kids tend to have a lot of questions about a lot of things. This is because their brain is developing rapidly, and they are beginning to better understand many topics and subjects they couldn’t grasp before.
That said, you may want to prepare yourself to answer plenty of questions about the tragedy at hand. Kids this age are still young, but you don’t need to shelter them quite as much as you would a preschool child. With that in mind, be sure to answer any and all questions honestly, in clear sentences, using words they understand. They are more aware than preschoolers, but they aren’t yet young adults. Therefore they need to be taught in ways they can understand and grasp the information they’re hearing.
When parents are distressed, kids at this age begin to pick up on those signals. If a child is showing concern for a parent who is distressed (most likely related to a tragedy in this case), the last thing you should do is to tell that child not to worry. The reason is because, more often than not, telling a child to stop worrying about their parent will cause them to worry even more. Their minds race, and may assume the worst. Instead, be honest with the child, all while keeping their age in mind.
Here are some of the most important things to keep in mind when discussing tragedy with elementary school aged children:
- Kids in this age group are more aware and intelligent than we give them credit for. Providing false reassurance to kids in this age group does not work, and can actually make the situation worse. Instead of promising the child that tragedies like this won’t happen again, tell them “you are safe now, and I will always be here to protect you”. It is okay to remind kids at this age that big tragedies occur only rarely, but don’t tell them that they won’t ever occur again. Additionally, keep in mind that kids are often more afraid and fearful at night time. If your kid is acting especially worried around bedtime, try to stick around and read to them until they fall asleep, or simply lay with them until they doze off, so that they will feel protected.
- During major tragedies, the media goes crazy posting and publishing content about the tragedy. This is a good thing, as it helps inform those around the country about the tragedy, and possibly how they can help those who are suffering from it. However, children are also exposed to reminders of scary or violent tragedies due to this media coverage. Monitor your kids media viewing, particularly when the tragedy involves content that could be damaging and extremely frightening to someone at such a young age. It’s a good idea to limit their media usage, and try to plan fun and productive activities daily to help keep their mind off of the situation at hand. They do need to understand what’s going on, but they don’t need to be constantly reminded of it.
- As previously mentioned, having an outlet for kids to express themselves is essential. This can be through discussion (talking), art (drawing, painting, clay, etc), or through playtime. Kids in this age group find a lot of comfort in expressing themselves through playing games or drawing. Plus, allowing them to do so gives parents the opportunity to “re-tell”, or better explain the tragedy to their child.
- Never be ashamed or afraid to tell your child that you “don’t know” the answer to some things. A big part of discussing tragedies is to be open and transparent, which includes being humble enough to let your child know if you don’t know how to answer one (or a few) of their questions. If this happens to you, take the chance to explain that due to the fact that major tragedies are rare, even adults have a difficult time dealing with them. Preface this by assuring your child that all the adults in their life are, and always will, work hard to keep them safe and secure.
Speaking with Adolescents
Unfortunately, when kids reach the age of adolescence, they often try to down-play their emotions. This includes their worries and concerns.
As a parent, encouraging these youth to openly communicate and work through their concerns surrounding a tragedy is not only very helpful, but teaches them skills for when they become an adult. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to discuss the financial, physical and emotional impact the tragedy may have on your family. When frightened, adolescents may express their fear through acting out, or possibly regressing to younger habits.
Here are some of the most important things to keep in mind when discussing tragedy with adolescents:
- Be mindful when discussing tragedy with adolescents who have existing emotional or mental problems, such as depression or anxiety. Youth at this age who already suffer from mental and/or emotional conditions can be especially susceptible to making rash, potentially harmful, decisions. You may need to provide additional supervision and support to them.
- Such as with elementary school aged children, this age group should have their media usage monitored.
- Adolescents are at the age where friends are extremely important to them. It’s a great idea to get their friends, and friends parents, together to discuss the tragedy openly and address fears they’re experiencing. This also provides a fantastic opportunity to address questions, educating the entire group of kids together.
Speaking with Teenagers
Teens are reaching the age where they are almost adults, and can understand and comprehend most situations. This includes tragedies.
That said, teenagers can mask their fears in order to appear more “adult-like”, or mature. The issue is that teens are not yet adults, and may not realize that adults, too, experience fear and concern surrounding tragedies. Encourage communication and speak with your teens as adults, so they know you’re taking them and their concerns seriously. Be transparent with them, and continue to provide comfort and assurance that they are being protected by the adults in their lives.
What can I do to help my child cope with tragedy?
Below, we’ve listed some of the best ways to help your child process and cope with tragedy:
- Remain calm and composed – Your child, no matter the age, will look at you for cues about how they should be acting and reacting to the tragedy at hand. It is okay to cry and show emotion around your children, however, do your best to express intense emotions in private.
- Always reassure your child of their safety and security – Do your best to keep your home clean, providing your child with a comforting space. Point out the various safety features of your home, and review emergency safety procedures with them.
- Never place blame – Some tragedies are caused by human error, violence or behavior. Never place blame on cultural, racial or ethnic groups, or people who struggle with mental illness.
- Control and limit media usage – Like we discussed before, you should do your best to monitor and limit the media your child is exposed to. This may require you to turn off the news, or put the paper down. For teenagers, when they are watching the news, do it with them so that you’re there to answer any questions they may have.
- Take extra time with your child – It’s always important to spend time with your child. This is especially true during times of tragedy. By doing so, your child’s sense of security and safety will increase. They will also feel more comfortable discussing their fears with you.
- Maintain your regular schedule – Although it can be difficult to continue on with your regular day-to-day schedule after a tragedy strikes, it is essential in order to give your child a sense of security and normalcy. Keep the family dinner time the same, homework hour, and bedtime routine.
- Encourage feelings to be shared – Make sure your child knows that it is absolutely okay, even healthy, to be upset sometimes. It’s okay to cry and be upset. Let younger children write about, or create art, about how he or she is feeling. Encourage positive activities and time with friends. Physical activity can provide an outlet for releasing built-up frustrations.
The most important thing to take away from this article, is that honest discussion and assurance of your child’s safety is the top priority when tragedy occurs. No matter how old we get, us adults still struggle when it comes to dealing with tragedy. However, our children struggle even more. By teaching them coping and communication skills from a young age, they’ll have an easier time dealing with tragedy as an adult.
For disaster crisis counseling, contact the national hotline Disaster Distress Helpline (DDH) toll-free via phone at (1-800-985-5990), or by SMS text message by sending “TalkWithUs” to 66746.