With recent tragedies in the news, many children are exposed to trauma through the media and in conversations. The Episcopal Center for Children (ECC), a nonprofit school that serves children with special needs, offers some advice on how to talk with your child about tragedy.
“Children hear information from other children and from the activities around them. Your child will pick up information very quickly after a traumatic event happens,” says Dodd White, president and CEO of ECC. “It’s important for parents and guardians to set a tone of openness and support with their children, and to reassure children that they are safe.” Dodd and the staff at ECC offer the following tips and advice:
Use age-appropriate language. Talk with your child about the tragedy in a way that is appropriate for his or her age. Elementary schoolers may have questions about their own safety and security. Older children may want more information about the cause of the tragedy or want to talk about how it could be prevented.
Share what is appropriate for your child. Be mindful about the personality of your child. Your child may be a six-year-old who laughs at monsters in movies and can handle the truth about bad guys being a reality of life. Or your child may be a ten-year-old who cannot handle scary movies, and gets emotional when people are hurt. When answering your child’s questions about tragic news events, let the unique personality of your child be your guide.
Let your child know it is okay to talk to you about the tragedy. Spend time talking with your child. Let her or him know that he or she is welcome to ask questions and express concerns and feelings. You might not know all the answers, and it is okay to say that. At the same time, don’t push a child to talk if he or she doesn’t want to. Let him or her know you are available when the child is ready.
Be calm. Your child will look to you for cues about how to react. It’s okay for children to see adults sad or crying, but consider excusing yourself if you are experiencing intense emotions.
Reassure your child about his or her own safety. Point out factors that ensure your child’s immediate safety and the safety of the community. Review your family’s plans for responding to a crisis. Assure your child that he or she is safe and loved.
Limit media exposure. Constant exposure to coverage of a tragedy can heighten anxiety. Do not allow young children to repeatedly see or hear news coverage of a tragedy. Even if a young child is engrossed in play, he or she is likely aware of what you are watching on television and can become confused or upset. Older children might want to learn more about a tragedy by reading or watching TV. However, avoid repetitive loops of news information once you have the facts.
Avoid placing blame. Be careful not to blame a cultural, racial, or ethnic group, or people who have mental illnesses.
Maintain your family routines. Continue your family’s usual routines for waking up, dinnertime, and bedtime. The familiarity of these routines will help your child.
Promote self-care. Encourage your child to drink enough water, eat regularly, rest, and exercise. And follow this advice for yourself, too!
Spend extra time together. Spend a little more time reading to your child. Take a few extra moments when tucking him or her in at night. If your child is having trouble sleeping, allow him or her to sleep with a light on or to sleep in your room for a short time. Extra hugs and cuddles are good, too. All of these actions can improve your child’s sense of security.
Watch for signs of stress and anxiety in your child. Look for hyperactivity, irritability, regression, stomachaches/headaches, and separation anxiety. Take steps to relieve stress and anxiety.
Get physical. Exercise can relieve stress and help you and your child get a better perspective.
Pay close attention to your child if he or she has emotional problems, learning challenges, is going through major changes at home, or has experienced trauma in the past. If your child has suffered a loss, is facing special challenges, or has been exposed to other trauma, he or she may be at greater risk of a severe reaction to a new tragic event. Watch your child closely for any changes in mood or behavior.
Do not dismiss or minimize your child’s feelings. Your child might worry that someone will come and hurt him or her. Rather than saying she’s being silly or that such things will never happen, help your child put things in perspective. Explain how rare such events are. Address each concern. Point out that many children and parents have the same worries, and we can instead focus on the definite “will happens” (fun things to do at home and at school and with friends and family) rather than on the very unlikely “might happens.”
Encourage the expression of feelings. Explain that it’s okay to be upset. Let your child write about or draw what he or she is feeling. Physical activity might serve as an outlet for feelings or frustration. If your child is acting out, explain that there are other ways of coping.
Do something for those affected by the tragedy. Focusing on what can be done to help others can help children feel less anxious and more secure. Consider ways that you and your child can help victims and their families. You might take your child to your place of worship, light a memorial candle, or write thank-you notes to first responders.
Get help if needed. If your child is still exhibiting signs of anxiety after a week or two, seek out a school counselor, therapist, a member of the clergy, or any other spiritual leader or mental health professional.
The Episcopal Center for Children is a nonprofit, nondenominational school and treatment program for children contending with emotional challenges. More information is available at eccofdc.org and on Twitter @ECCofDC.