Talking to Your Child in the Aftermath of a Tragedy

Dec 17, 2017 / Pediatrics

By Michelle Dalal, MD, Reliant Medical Group Pediatrics

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers so many caring people in this world.” Fred Rogers (host of the TV show, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood)

Sadly, we live in a world where mass shootings and other tragic events have become almost commonplace. These disturbing events, which can happen in workplaces, schools, and even places of worship, impact children and teenagers in unique ways. As parents, grandparents, teachers, and others who come into contact with children, we often struggle with ways to help children through these experiences.

Here are some tips to help a child manage the stress of hearing about a tragic experience, whether it is close to home or far away.

Don’t be afraid to communicate. A child should know that you are there for them if they want to talk about their fears. Always keep the lines of communication open. Listen to their thoughts and points of view so you can understand what they are going through. Let them know that their fears and concerns are normal, and that you are always there to listen and provide support.

Watch for signs of stress or anxiety. Children can experience a wide range of emotions after experiencing or hearing about a traumatic event, including shock, anger, grief and anxiety. Behavioral changes can also happen, such as trouble sleeping, or becoming highly irritable or defiant. Other things to watch for include loss of appetite or difficulties in school. Children may also have an unnatural fear of separation from their parents after a tragedy. Fortunately, these types of reactions should diminish after a few weeks.

Limit media exposure. Too much exposure to tragic events can heighten the anxiety and fear that children already feel. That’s why it’s best to limit the amount of time viewing TV news or other information about these events available on the Internet.

Provide reassurance. Let your child know that there are many people helping to keep them safe every day. From school administrators to security guards and the police, there are people who are dedicated to protect them. Let your child know that you are not the only one that they can rely on. Let them see and know that their home is a safe place

Know when to seek help. Some children may have more trouble dealing with a tragedy than others. If after three months your child is still acting fearful and showing signs of stress and anxiety, you should talk to your primary care physician for guidance. Fortunately, children are resilient and can work through fearful situations when provided appropriate support.

Other resources:

Talking to children about tragedies and other news events:

Disaster Distress Helpline

SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline, (1-800-985-5990), is a 24/7, 365-day-a-year, national hotline dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. This toll-free, multilingual, and confidential crisis support service is available to all residents in the United States and its territories. Call the above number or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor. (Note: SAMHSA is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.)

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