Helping Children Cope With Tragedy
Recent distressing and terribly destructive events in Los Angeles County–from shootings to wildfires–deeply impact entire communities and families. And while scary events are hard enough for parents themselves to process, helping children through tragic events and unpredictable times presents a unique challenge. How can we manage our own, real anxiety while seeking to assure kids that everything will be okay? How can we help children retain trust and faith when we may doubt it ourselves? How do we share information in a way that children can handle it, and enable them to express their feelings?
Over the years, experts at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles have offered ideas to First 5 LA on helping children through very difficult times. Here are some ways for whole families to process and build resilience through tragic events:
Keep explanations age-appropriate. Listen to your child—if he or she is aware of a tragic situation, what does he or she know or feel about the event? Offer short, clear explanations, addressing concerns and offering reassurance: Bad things happen, but not very often.
Limit media exposure. Understanding the constant coverage of a single or ongoing event can “retraumatize” children, who may not be able to understand or process it. Instead, be aware of your child’s reaction, control your child’s exposure to media coverage, which may be scary, and be available to talk or answer questions.
Use discretion in discussing the tragedy. Consider your own–perhaps very strong–feelings about tragic events, and how you want to discuss them with children. Children may want to protect you when they see very strong reactions, which may not be healthy for them in processing their own responses. While sharing and discussing your feelings calmly can be helpful to children–for example, letting them know you are sad, and that it is okay, and that eventually you won’t feel so sad–reacting in a strongly angry or despairing way may upset or scare children. Being a calm, strong presence can help reassure children that they are safe.
Let them know all feelings are okay. After hearing about a tragedy, some kids may be sad for the people who got hurt. Other kids might respond by saying that they are happy because they–or people they know–were not hurt. Rather than responding in a judgemental way, letting your child know that every feeling is okay when he or she feels it. As a parent, acknowledging that your child’s feelings are valid helps that child process tragedy and build resilience.
Offer perspective. If your child is afraid, acknowledge his or her feelings with compassion. Provide perspective on the event by asking your child how he or she feels most of the time. Does he or she usually feel safe? Are people there to take care and protect him or her? Make a list of good things in your lives–and things that you can look forward to–to restore a sense of balance and perspective.