Helping children and youth deal with tragic events

After a tragedy, our job as adults is to help children understand the events and manage their responses to it.

The recent tragedy in Connecticut at an elementary school resulting in the death of 27 people, 20 of them children between the ages of 5 and 10, has left many reeling with grief, sadness and a sense of bewilderment. From Michigan State University Extension, our hearts go out to those families who have lost their children to such a senseless act.

Although we want to protect our children from the all harsh realities of life, unfortunately this tragedy may have an effect on our children or the children in our care. Our job as adults is to help children understand the events and manage their responses to it.

One thing we can all do is to avoid talking about this with other adults in front of children. You may think children are not paying attention or are unable to understand the words we are saying. In fact, children are very good at sensing emotions in adults. While they may not understand what you are saying, if you are voicing concern, worry and sadness, they will get the message that something is wrong or unsafe in their little world.

Try to minimize their exposure to media coverage, especially with graphic or upsetting coverage. Provide them opportunities to talk about what they may see on TV and give them a chance to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t have answers to all of their questions. With a tragedy like this, it is difficult for anyone to come up with answers to explain why some things happen.

Be sensitive to clues your child knows something about the situation. If they bring up the topic with you, ask what your child knows about and ask what they are wondering about. That way, you can modify your answers and give your child only the information they want to know without having to talk about the entire very difficult issue. Provide ongoing opportunities for children to talk and express emotions about the event. They may have more questions as time goes on, and that is okay.

Remind them that there are no bad emotions and encourage them to express their feelings to you and other adults who are there to help them understand and deal with strong feelings. Sometimes, an event like this can trigger other fears or troubling emotions children might be having. Be prepared to help them through other issues that may arise.

Be sure to help children and yourself by focusing on some of good things, such as rescue workers other first responders who come to the aid immediately, families, and communities coming together to offer support and comfort. Give your children an opportunity to offer support if they are old enough and feel compelled to do so. Help them to draw pictures or write cards or letters to the families.

It is important to remember in times like these to remember that each and every day is precious. Take the time to express your love to your children, family members and friends. Extra hugs, snugs and kisses do help at times like these. Even better, continuous, reliable and pervasive demonstrations of love and caring can help provide a good base of support when bad things happen.

For more information:

Tips for Talking to Children and Youth after Traumatic Events

Talking to Children about the School Shooting

Helping Children Cope with Tragedy Related Anxiety

Tips for Helping Students Recovering from Traumatic Events

Caring for Kids Trauma, Disaster and Death: A Guide for Parents and Professionals