Helping Children Cope After a Tragic Event

By: Adair Parr,  M.D., J.D.
These days, tragedies, whether natural disasters or man-made, are in the news more and more frequently. Our 24/7 news cycle seems to make this worse, given that media wants to cover ongoing events or the latest breaking news. Even when your child and your family is not directly involved in such tragedies, children may hear about the events through television or social media or at school. It is important to consider how your child responds to such tragedies and media coverage of such events. Tips to consider include the following:
Take care of yourself first. In order to respond to your child’s emotional needs, it is important to be aware of your own emotional state. Children depend on adults around them to feel safe and secure. They will likely be affected if you are very anxious or angry. If you need support, find a trusted individual to help.
Watch for changes in your child’s behaviors. Irritability, problems sleeping, withdrawal for social interactions or usual activities, nightmares, repetitive play (reenacting the traumatic event) or changes in appetite may be seen. Also watch for physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches, which may be signs of stress and anxiety.
Break the news. Be straightforward and honest but remember to be developmentally appropriate. Do not give more information than they need or are prepared to hear. However, avoiding the subject may make it worse in your child’s mind. Encourage your child to ask questions. Be available when your child is ready to talk.
Reassure children that they are safe in their schools, homes, and communities and that steps are being taken to help with safety.
Limit television, social media and news coverage of tragic events. Even teenagers and adults are affected by watching coverage of tragic events, so watch with your teenager and discuss what is being seen and your emotional reaction. Listen to your child’s emotional reaction as well.
If your child expresses such a desire, partner with community agencies or schools to help provide assistance or support after an event. A fundraising drive or book collection is an example.
If you have any concerns about your child, seek professional help through your pediatrician or school counselor for a referral to a mental health professional.
Further information may be found at the following resources:
American Academy of Pediatrics: Responding to Children’s Emotional Needs
Tips for helping children cope with disaster by Harold Koplewicz, MD of Child Mind Institute: WATCH VIDEO