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What To Tell Kids When Tragic Events Occur

Tragic Family Events

It can be scary for both adults and children when tragedy occurs. Amidst coping with the tragic event themselves, adults are often faced with how to help their children handle new and frightening emotions. Although children and teens are typically resilient when traumatic events occur, it can be helpful to ensure they feel supported and connected. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recommends several different ways to guide your children in processing and regulating their emotions:

• Talk with your children. Speaking with your children not only paves the way for future conversations, but it ensures they will hear the truth from you regarding the tragedy. In the age of technology, it is certain children will hear about the event one way or another – it is best they hear the facts from you. If they prefer not to talk, encourage writing or drawing how they are feeling. Assure them it is OK to feel sad and cry.
• Ask children and teens what they already know. Help them understand what happened while being mindful of only providing facts that are age appropriate. It is important to tell the truth, but children may not need to know all the details to adequately cope.
• If warranted, have a discussion about safety. Assure your children they are safe. Develop a family safety plan, if needed.
• It is OK to share your own feelings. For example, acknowledging that you are sad, too. However, it also is important to stay calm. Children can become more fearful upon seeing terror and anxiety in adults.
• Reassure your children you are there for them and what happened is not their fault. Avoid placing blame on culture, race, ethnicity, sexuality or disability. If appropriate, have a discussion about the importance of respect and diversity.
• Keep your routine as much as possible and model good self-care habits. Focus on eating healthy meals, getting adequate sleep, regular exercise and regulating emotions. Teaching children how to take deep breaths is a great place to start.
• Limit media exposure, as repeated exposure can lead to anxiety even if children are not directly watching.

Age-specific suggestions to aid children in coping and what to expect:

Preschool-age children:

• Match eye levels, use a calm and gentle voice and provide hugs. Discuss how the tragedy may affect them and review ways to keep them safe. Let children know you will take care of them.
• If children are having difficulty adjusting to change, they may revert to younger behaviors (e.g., thumb-sucking, bed-wetting). You also might notice a change in eating and sleeping patterns. It is important not to criticize if these behaviors occur but instead reassure your children they are safe.

Elementary and early middle school children:.

• Answer any questions they might have about the event and safety. Ask children what they need to help cope. Ensure you are spending adequate time with them, although you should not always focus on the trauma. It is important to spend time together getting back to regular routines.
• These children can struggle with nightmares, paying attention and school in general. They might not want to spend time with friends. Children struggling to cope with difficult emotions also can exhibit aggressive behaviors as a way of processing emotions. If you notice these behaviors, talk with your children and provide safe outlets to process emotions.

Late middle school and high school children:

• Teens might ask for additional information about what happened. Engage them in activities to assist individuals affected by the traumatic event.
• They might deny feelings or be hesitant to express feelings, argue, defy rules or engage in risky behaviors (e.g., substance use, sexual activities).
• Monitor their behaviors and activities to ensure safety and appropriate expression of emotions.

Keep in mind any previous trauma will make children more vulnerable to these reactions. While the above behaviors are typical of children after tragic events, be sure to seek professional help if the symptoms persist.

Source: Allison Kranich, MS, LCPC, CAADC is a counselor with Centegra Physician Care.