Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Tips for Helping Children Cope with Tragedy

Beth traveled to Boston to watch a friend run the marathon. Luckily, she left the finish area about an hour before the explosions, and she and her friends are safe and unharmed. 

Lately, Americans have played witness to a particularly ugly streak of senseless violence. A country that is still haunted by the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, was hit on Monday with a horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon that caused the deaths of three spectators and grievous injuries to nearly 200 others. These events leave adults confused and frightened, but parents and teachers have the additional burden of discussing tragedies with the children in their lives. We've compiled a list of useful resources and some of the most common — and sensible — tips for talking to kids of all ages when the unthinkable happens.

In our research, we came across the following themes and tips repeatedly:

Act as a filter for your kids, no matter how old they are.

Turn off the news and insist that the family take a media break once you have a sense that terrible information has overwhelmed the household. No one can be unaffected by a bombardment of horrific facts.

Talk to kids about what happened, and be honest.

Consult the National Associate of School Psychologists’s helpful guide for information about developmentally appropriate explanations. Be aware that children’s understanding of language may not match yours. A wonderful article on the PBS website reminds adults that “far away” may mean Afghanistan to you but the other side of town to a young child. Be specific. Use resources like maps to make things concrete for kids, if that will help them find peace. Reassure kids that they are safe. Explain the safety measures taken by their school (guest badges for visitors, teacher training, etc.) and by your family to keep them out of harm’s way.

Be sure that it’s a two-way discussion.

Give kids the chance to voice their concerns and ask questions. Remember to clarify questions before answering them to get a sense of what the child really wants to know and what kind of understanding must be established. Ask them to tell you what they've heard.

We all feel powerless in the wake of tragedies.

Help kids combat this with three different plans of action:

  1. Make sure they know both school and family emergency plans.  
  2. If children seem particularly anxious, practice techniques for self-soothing such as repeating a calming mantra (“I’m safe, nothing will happen to me.”) or doing deep breathing exercises. 
  3. Help empower kids by making them part of a positive outcome. Collecting donations for tragedy victims can be a very productive way to work through tough feelings. Monetary donations can be raised through bake sales or collections, but don’t forget that resources are often needed, too.

Maintain a normal routine.

Going about business as usual is enormously comforting to children. Be sure to be more available than usual to your kids, however. Read a book with them during the day, take a special trip to the library, ask your kids to help prepare dinner, or join in their play. Be sure to model calm and assurance for your kids – they’ll need you to show them how to feel and behave.

Be extra-sensitive to children’s behaviors.

Watch for difficulty sleeping or nightmares, changes in eating habits, difficulty separating from parents, etc. Changes may be an indication that your child needs extra support. At the same time, remember that some kids will need less help than others. A child who seems to be coping well may begin to feel panicked if her parents are too comforting when she doesn't need it.

The tips above were compiled from the following resources:

We also found the following resources, which may be of further use to educators and parents:

  • Teachers of middle and high schools may be interested in this lesson plan, available through The New York Times, which helps kids articulate their feelings about school violence and take actions which may help them feel safer
  • Scholastic offers some cogent tips for teachers to keep in mind in the wake of a horrible event
  • PBS provides these “age-by-age insights” to help adults understand how to discuss tragedy with children in a developmentally appropriate way
  • New York Times article published in the days following the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.offers excellent insights from prominent, wise child psychiatrists

Finally, some words of hope: Fred Rogers, beloved host of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” This may be one of the best messages we can share with our children, and each other.

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