Ask the Expert

How can I help my child cope with a tragic event?

Erin Seaton, a lecturer in school psychology in the Department of Education with expertise in psychological health and development, offers some suggestions
April 19, 2013

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In the aftermath of a tragedy, parents often turn to school and community leaders for guidance about how to best support children after acts of violence. With many schools closed for April vacation, parents may be left without such support to guide their response to Monday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon.

Parents themselves may feel overwhelmed, angry, sad or confused, as the terror of such acts leaves everyone feeling helpless in its wake. Parents of young children might notice their child struggling with separation, crying more often or acting fearful. Elementary school children might be more sensitive than usual, express anxiety, experience outbursts, complain of physical pain, have nightmares or have difficulty focusing. Adolescents may feel numb, depressed or guilty or turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with difficult feelings.

Children may react right away or even several weeks after a traumatic event. Here are some ways you can comfort your child:

Children look to adults to model appropriate responses to their feelings, and parents can talk with children about what they do to care for themselves when they are upset. Photo: iStockStart by listening. Follow a child’s cues. Encourage children to talk about their feelings. Ask questions when the child is ready. Young children may use play to work through complex feelings. Older children may seek out friends. Parents can encourage children to make meaning of the event by talking to others, or through music, writing or drawing.

Reassure your child that it is normal to have many different feelings after a trauma. Help your child find constructive ways to manage those feelings. For example, a young child may take a stuffed animal to bed. An older child can participate in a sport. Children look to adults to model appropriate responses to their feelings, and parents can talk with children about what they do to care for themselves when they are upset.

Answer your child’s questions honestly, being careful to provide information that is appropriate for your child’s age. Young children and sensitive older children need basic information in response to their questions—but not overwhelming details. Parents can talk about the ways in which first responders and doctors cared for victims, emphasizing that when scary things happen, many people respond with care for others. Older children may have access to more information, and parents should encourage open conversations about what these children see or hear.

Limiting access to media is important for all children. Repeated exposure to violent images and news coverage can heighten a child’s anxiety. Likewise, parents should be mindful about the conversations they have with other adults when children are present.

Children should take breaks from the powerful emotions they are experiencing. There may be times when children don’t want to talk about the bombing but prefer to focus on other activities they enjoy. Parents should respect their child’s desire to engage in regular activities.

Routine provides security. Returning to ordinary life may seem difficult, but for young children, maintaining schedules for mealtime and bedtime, for example, provides a sense of security and comfort. Parents can help older children spend time with friends or participate in regular arts or athletic activities.

Help children identify adults who can offer support and guidance. These may include relatives, caregivers, community and religious leaders, teachers, counselors, coaches or other school faculty. Parents should communicate with schools about their child’s emotional response and the ways in which the school will respond to the bombing.

Reach out to your community. Parents can look for ways in which their community responds to the event. For some children, participating in a school or community ceremony or project can be a constructive way to make meaning out of an overwhelming experience.

Be attentive to your own feelings and well-being. Trying to remain calm may be difficult, but this can communicate a sense of safety and security to a child. Like their children, parents need to find ways to process a traumatic event. Self-care is important, and parents should think about ways in which they can make time to eat, sleep, exercise or care for themselves and connect with others.

Over the coming weeks and months, parents can expect that events, stories, even loud noises might trigger emotional responses from their children. The power of a trauma is that it feels unpredictable, overwhelming and frightening. Libraries, pediatricians, schools, books such as Eve Bunting’s Smoky Nights and web resources from the American Psychological Association, the National Institutes of Health or PBS—for instance, special episodes of Reading Rainbow—can help parents navigate the difficult time ahead.

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