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Helping Kids Cope with Tragedy

Esse Health Pediatrician Dr. Peter Putnam shares tips on talking to your kids about tragedy.

Terrorist attacks. Super storms. School shootings. Meteor crashes. Financial crises.

Unfortunately, our lives are filled with all sorts of tragedies. We all lose sleep worrying about these catastrophes and hope and pray they will never touch our families, friends, or communities – and especially not our children. Yet these events, directly or indirectly, can affect our children by causing fear and worry. These tragedies are often too massive or horrific for adults to understand. How can we explain tragedy to our children and reassure them they are safe? This brief article will give you some tips for talking to your children when a tragedy occurs.

Before talking to your child about a tragic event, make sure that you have taken care of yourself and your feelings. Find a trusted family member, friend, religious leader, or counselor to discuss with if needed. Also, consider the age and maturity of your child and gauge your response accordingly.

Begin by asking your child what they have heard about the frightening event and how she or he understands it. Not talking about a tragic event makes it seem more horrible and does not give your child a chance to understand and learn to cope with it. Listen carefully to your child’s explanation and be sure to note any misconception or misunderstanding.

Explain as directly as possible the event and your understanding of it, taking care to use language and detail based on your child’s age. Be aware of his or her body language and cues to know when you have shared enough information. In general, older children will require more information or explanation. Give your child time to ask questions. These question and answer sessions may need to happen repeatedly as your child processes the thoughts and emotions surrounding the event. Do not “force” your child to talk about it if she or he does not want to. Instead, by repeatedly inviting your child to talk about a tragic event, you are offering her increased physical and emotional presence that will be reassuring for her as you wait for your child to be ready to discuss the event with you.

Limit media (television and Internet) coverage of these events – especially for younger children. The raw images seen on TV may be too much for a child to handle. You may decide that an older child can watch TV coverage of an event, but be sure to watch with your child to be able to provide more information and to talk about how it makes you feel. By sharing your own feelings about a tragic event, you provide a role model for your child on how to cope with sadness, anger, or anxious feelings.

Reassure your child the steps that are being taken to ensure her safety and protection. Explain this in terms your child will understand. In addition, ask your child what concrete steps she can take to help the victims of the tragedy. Besides deflecting attention from the unanswerable questions about what could have prevented the tragedy, this once again models a healthy, positive response to tragedy by focusing on the needs of others.

Finally, depending on the severity or closeness of the tragedy, your child may develop symptoms of anxiety. These include:
• Irritable or depressed mood
• Sleep disturbances such as nightmares, difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, increased sleeping
• Change in appetite
• Social withdrawal
• Obsessive play including recreating or focusing on the tragic event
• New hyperactivity
If any of theses signs or symptoms develop, contact your pediatrician for evaluation and treatment.

Following these suggestions will make it easier to explain tragic events to your child in a direct manner. In addition, talking about the events and the feelings they generate in us will model healthy, productive coping skills that will help develop resiliency in our children – a resource that they can draw on whenever they are faced with tragedy in the future.

For more parenting resources, please visit Esse Health’s website.

By Dr. Peter Putnam, Esse Health Pediatrician
Esse Health Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine at Watson Road
9930 Watson Road, Suite 100
St. Louis, MO 63126
Phone: 314-965-5437

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Lindsay Toler April 16, 2013 at 02:12 AM
In light of today's bombing, Dr. Putnam, do you have any advice for addressing the Boston Marathon explosions with kids?
Esse Health Pediatrics April 16, 2013 at 02:57 PM
Yesterday’s event was a terrible tragedy and parents should first make sure they take care of their own feelings. Then, ask your children what they have heard about the event and explain it to them in terms they understand. Assure them that they are safe. There are some gruesome images on TV and the Internet that is not appropriate for children to see. Be sure to limit your kids exposure to this as much as possible. If your children seem to be affected by this tragedy and developing symptoms of anxiety, reach out to your pediatrician.

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