Helping Our Children Cope with Tragedy

December 16, 2012

By Janelle Novell, LMFT, RPT-S

In light of the recent shootings at a shopping mall in Oregon and an Elementary School in Connecticut, parents all over America are struggling with the same question. “How do we talk to our children about these tragedies and how do we help them cope with their own fear and anxiety that can result when their sense of safety is shattered”?

First, parents need to remain calm and keep their own anxiety in check.  Children are very sensitive to parental stress. They can mirror the parents’ own level of anxiety.   Monitor your own outrage and fear about the shooting.  I have heard parents make statements to other adults that the world has become so unsafe that we can’t even go to the mall, or a movie theater anymore.  Remember, children are listening to our words and these statements do not help children maintain a sense of safety and well-being.  If you find that you are feeling overwhelmed with your own fear and anxiety it may be helpful for you to talk to someone that you trust.

Addressing the nation about the recent shooting, President Obama said that he and his wife Michelle would be holding their daughter’s tighter and telling them that they love them.  Good advice.  Reassure your children that you love them, they are safe and that steps are being taken to ensure their safety.  This is a good time to increase family time and model a calm, reassuring and in charge presence.

Limit your children’s exposure to media regarding the shootings.  Over exposure to media coverage can shake a young child’s sense of security and confidence in those that ensure their safety.  That doesn’t mean that children won’t hear information from peers, or that older children might access information for themselves from TV or the internet; so parents should be prepared for questions from their children and help them process information.

Check in with your children.  Find out what they already know and what they are feeling about the information they have.  If questions are asked, answer them honestly, in a developmentally appropriate manner.  Be as factual as possible and don’t overwhelm the child with information they did not ask for, or your own feelings and speculations about the situation.  Asking questions can help children cope with their anxieties.  Be mindful that some children will need to ask the same questions over and over.  Be patient and don’t dismiss their concerns.

Children may express a wide range of feelings, including sadness, fear and uncertainty.  Reassure your children that not only are their feelings real, they are typical reactions to events such as the shootings.   Other children may not open up quite so readily.  Parents should pay attention to their children exhibiting symptoms of anxiety.  Children may express worry about their own safety, or that of loved ones.  They may have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or even experience nightmares.  They may be preoccupied with details of the violence or death.  They may withdraw from family and social events.  They may have difficulty concentrating and begin to have behavioral difficulties that were not previously present.  Parents may observe irritability, anger and even aggression.  Children may also exhibit bouts of crying, or complain about physical symptoms and be taken for frequent trips to the doctor.

Children who have previously experienced a traumatic event may be particularly vulnerable to symptoms of anxiety and depression.

One of the ways we can help children cope with overwhelming feelings is to resume normal activities as soon as possible, and maintain a sense of normality at home and at school.  However, be sensitive that performing these tasks may be difficult due to the stress the child is experiencing, and as parents we may need to adjust our expectations.

In addition, involving children in community activities such as church groups and other volunteer organizations that provide volunteer assistance to victims may provide them with a sense of empowerment and a way for them to focus their energies.

Finally, parents can take an opportunity to teach their children not only what to do in emergencies, but also compassion and understanding that a mental health diagnosis does not necessarily mean a person will engage in random acts of violence.

Additional sources of information that may be beneficial to your family are available at the following:

 http://pta.org/SchoolViolence

http://www.pbs.org/parents/talkingwithkids/news/

 http://www.fema.gov/sites/default/files/orig/fema_pdfs/pdf/library/children.pdf

About the Author:

 Janelle Novell is co-founder of Novell and Novell Counseling Services.  She is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor who works exclusively with children ages 2-12.   Play Therapy is a form of counseling or psychotherapy that uses play to communicate with and help people, especially children, to prevent or resolve psychosocial challenges.

jnovell@novellcounseling.org