How to Support Your Child When Tragedy Strikes

When human tragedies like school shootings or some of the natural disasters that occur annually, it’s imperative that parents be prepared and informed on how to respond when children witness or experience these disasters. These events can be very scary for children and can make the world feel like a frightening and unpredictable place. Children may even relate what they see on the television to their own lives. How children interpret and process these events depends on their age and state of development.

A Young Child’s Response to Disaster or Tragedy

Young children have a difficult time discerning between what is real and make-believe. This can be a problem because when they see the same image or video of a traumatic event repeatedly, they may believe that it is continuing to happen. It’s confusing; they may not understand what happened, but they will definitely know how it has affected those around them. It’s important to help them understand and manage their own experience of loss, fear, and change.

What are some indicators that your child is really struggling with these events? You may see an increase in acting out. They might have trouble paying attention, refuse to go to school, or start self-harming behaviors such as cutting. With really young children, you may even observe regressive behaviors such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting.

How You Can Help and Support Young Children

There are many ways parents can support their child when a disaster or act of violence occurs. You can start by simply listening. Then help your child name how they feel in response to what they’ve seen, heard, or experienced. Naming their feelings can provide clarity and help them calm down. Once they have named the feeling, it’s important to show empathy and compassion. Compassion is empathy in action. Children will feel better when others have shown them care and concern.

When there are strong feelings, young children also need to be taught skills and strategies to calm themselves. Belly breathing and using positive self-talk can help children regulate their feelings of fear, worry, and anxiety. You should demonstrate these techniques for your child and practice them together.

Belly breathing will help to reduce negative stress by lowering the stress hormone cortisol, and it can improve mood by elevating the “feel-good” hormone serotonin. Belly breathing is simply pushing the belly out when you breathe in. By doing as few as three of these breaths together with your child, you will also help to bring more oxygen to the brain and muscles, resulting in a more relaxed body.

Negative self-talk can make strong feelings even stronger, so using positive self-talk can help your child calm down. Help your child to understand any negative self-talk that may exist, because negative thoughts lead to negative feelings, which can lead to negative behaviors. Sometimes young children don’t know the difference between thoughts and feelings, so you can explain to them that thoughts come from your head and feelings come from your heart or body. Begin by normalizing any worries or anxiety they have. You can then help your child generate some ideas for positive self-talk they can use to calm down in response to what they have seen or heard. Positive self-talk might sound something like, “I am safe, and my family is here to take care of me.”

Teens’ and Tweens’ Response to Disaster or Tragedy

Teens and tweens have greater access to the media and information about what is happening in our world locally and globally. They understand a whole lot more than young children do but can still have difficulty comprehending or accepting these events. Older children will often want to share their feelings and thoughts about the events. Some signs that they are struggling are withdrawing from family, engaging in risk-taking behavior, self-mutilation, reporting physical symptoms (somaticizing), and acting out, either at school or at home.

How You Can Support Teens and Tweens

In addition to teaching skills to younger children, the adults in a teen/tween’s life need to be mindful of how important it is to model a healthy response to disasters by regulating their own emotions. Studies have shown that parents can help their kids face emotional challenges by modeling a positive emotional response. By sharing with your child how you feel about the events, you can prompt an open dialogue about what has occurred. Children want honest answers and information, so be sure to address all their concerns and answer their questions truthfully. Don’t dismiss or minimize anything you might not be completely comfortable with. It can be tempting to avoid some of the topics or concerns your child raises. It is essential to validate what they are thinking and feeling.

Not all teens or tweens want to discuss these topics with their parents. It’s perfectly normal if they don’t want to share their thoughts or fears with you. You can encourage them to talk to their friends and peers or to express or themselves in other ways—through writing and drawing, for example. Studies have shown that if teens have at least one good friend they can talk to, they tend to have greater coping skills and be more resilient.

When disaster and devastation occur in our lives, there is not one right way to discuss the traumatic incident. Most children will be able to move through and past their concern, worry, and anxiety when parents are there to listen, support, and teach them coping skills. But if anxiety or worry persists after a month or so, it may be a sign your child needs professional assistance. Ultimately though, parents are going to be the greatest source of support for their child in difficult times. By being prepared and informed you can help move your child through difficult emotions and reactions with greater ease.