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How to help children deal with tragedy

By James Minikowski, IMFT-S, August 4, 2014

I grew up in Connecticut not far from where the tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary School took place. As a result of my roots there, many people have talked to me about the incident.

People have asked me how they can be sure their children are able to deal with tragedy in a healthy way, and how to help them feel safe in the face of such a heinous act. Unfortunately, we, the community of Northeast Ohio, are also too familiar with violent acts. What follows is a compilation of some of my discussions and recommendations.

Each child is different, but most children interpret the world through their parents. They pick up on the tensions and changes in attitudes we experience and react to those changes. While trying to be aware of your child's feelings, be sure to be mindful of your own. Try your best to be in control of your emotions responding to both the event and to your child's behavior. Be prepared to be open enough to discuss the complexity of dealing with difficult emotions. Being in control of your own emotions reinforces a message of security and safety.

Be observant of a child's behavior because a child may not understand or know quite why they feel a certain way but they can worry all the same. Be aware of both their verbal language and body language for signs that that they are having difficulty. Some children may not be emotionally capable of telling someone exactly how they feel, but they will often show it. What they display will differ from child to child, but watch for difficulty with sleeping or eating routines, extra displays of emotions, acting out, clinging to caregivers, zoning out, complaining of physical ailments, or simply being cranky.

If you see your child having behavioral difficulties, ask them about how they are feeling. Broach the subject by asking if they need or want to talk. Reassure them that talking is good. Let them know that we are trying our best to keep them safe. Talk about how to respond if they don't feel safe. When talking to a child about a tragedy, pay attention to how each child is different and thus can only take on or understand so much. Only provide them with as much information as they can handle and in words they can understand. Too much information can be frightening and overwhelming, while too little can leave a child lost and insecure. Pay attention to their verbal language and body language for signs that that they are having difficulty with the conversation. If they seem uncomfortable with the discussion, end it for the time being but let them know that if they want to talk more or ask another question, they can always come to you. Older children should be more capable of discussing tragedy than younger children.

Control their exposure to the media. It is the media's job to quickly present all the information they have. This doesn't include the filter that parents should want when describing trauma.

Outside of conversations about a tragedy, be sure to focus on creating a healthy home environment by doing the following: Spend a little extra time with children engaging in fun activities or comforting and holding them. Return to their normal routine as soon as possible. Praise them for being a great person. When you have to leave, reassure them that you love them and that you will come back. These positive reinforcements will foster a feeling of security and create a healthy distraction to focus their attention in the direction you desire.

The most important thing to do when interacting with your child after a tragedy has occurred is to, above all else, reinforce that you are there to help them when they feel scared. If a child's reaction to a tragedy persists, and their behavior interferes with their ability to manage their life effectively, seek out professional support or counseling.

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