Tips on Helping Children Understand and Cope with Tragedy

While adults are glued to their screens when tragedy strikes, it is important to remember that some young people may also be paying attention.  The news can be upsetting, scary and even debilitating.  With this summer’s tragic increase in violence, it is important to take your child’s age, temperament, maturity and past experiences into account when deciding how to talk to them.

The following are some tips on how to support your children in times of tragedy:

Children Under 7

Keep the news at bay – At this age, children do not need to see or hear things that will only scare them.  They are most concerned about your safety and may not want to separate from you after hearing such scary news.  Little ones tend to respond most strongly to images where other children are put in peril.  Reassure them that both you and they are safe, and help them understand what protective measures are in place to keep it that way.

Children 8 – 12

Consider how your child may react to such news – While some children will be able to handle these types of conversations, others who are more sensitive may not.  It is best to avoid viewing repeated images and news that can make these dangers feel closer to home than they actually are.  Children at this age tend to view events in very black and white terms – proceed with caution when making generalizations.  Ask them what they already know to spark a conversation and ensure they are not receiving misinformation.

Teenagers

Talk with your teenager  – Your child has likely heard information from many different sources.  Discussing what they have heard and how they feel will give you some insight into their developing political and worldviews.  Teens will often feel very passionate about the events unfolding in the world around them, so addressing their concerns without minimizing them is a great way to develop a trusting relationship.

All Children

Reassure them that they are cared for and safe  – Although a particular tragedy is receiving a lot of press coverage, it is important to help your child understand this is a very rare occurrence.  Children will look to you for their own cues on how you handle such news.  While it is encouraged to show your emotions, falling apart is not the best way to model appropriate feelings.  It is important they see you both care and feel remorse while continuing to do everything in your power to keep them safe.

Limit the recurring images and news – Repeated viewing of breaking news and strong images can build anxiety and fear.  Be watchful for any signs of changes in your children’s behavior that may be indicative of added stress or anxiety.  With violence in the news unlikely to go away soon, it is important to remember that our children, regardless of age, are intuitive and impressionable.  They will take their cues from you on how to view the world and how to treat others with kindness, compassion and respect.  Although explaining such events is difficult, doing so will help create a foundation of trust that will make it easier for them come to you when they have future questions, concerns or fears.

Additional reading on the topic:

Mayo Clinic, Helping Children Cope: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/helping-children-cope/art-20047029

National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Helping Teens after the recent attacks: http://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/assets/pdfs/parents_guidelines_for_helping_teens_after_the_recent_attacks.pdf

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