Sunday, December 16, 2012

Helping Kids Cope with Tragedy

Here we are in what should be a joyous celebration of the holiday seasons with hearts full of good cheer, and instead I find my thoughts returning time and again to the families of the children and teachers who were slaughtered in Connecticut last week. Anyone who has parented a child will find it almost impossible to imagine the horror that has engulfed that community.

My thoughts also, however, turn to the living—to parents all over the country who are wondering how to help their own children deal with what has happened. To this end, in this week’s blog I share some strategies experts have been posting this week. Much of this advice will serve equally well for national tragedies like the current one and scary situations closer to home--like accidents, robberies, fires, or natural disasters.

Let your child’s questions guide the discussion. This is especially true for very young children who may be surprisingly oblivious to what’s going on around them. In fact, sometimes parents are upset that their children are not upset! If you find yourself feeling that way, keep in mind that children’s worlds are very narrow and revolve almost exclusively around what affects them personally. Remember, the last thing you want to do is create anxiety where none exists!

Limit viewing of television coverage. Although it’s natural for adults to want their children to empathize with others’ suffering, resist the impulse to use the heartbreaking coverage of a tragedy to generate such feelings. All you may be creating is fear and sadness that make your child feel helpless. Look instead for ways to foster empathy that involve situations that are easy for a young child to understand--and remedy (e.g., another child is hurt, an animal is cold and hungry, a relative is feeling lonely).

Reassure your child that he/she is safe. This is obviously a very important goal. The term “reassure” is important because it reflects the reality that it is natural for children to be afraid. Don’t dismiss these fears. Listen carefully, let them talk, try to see if they have specific fears or a general anxiety. If there are specific fears—for example, that their classroom is not safe—talk about specific steps the school is taking to ensure their safety. Emphasize the availability of trustworthy adults both at school and at home.

Watch for changes in behavior. Anxiety can reveal itself in many ways besides just words. Be aware of changes in appetite, sleep patterns, acting out, clinging, etc. that seem to coincide with the external situation.

Review safety precautions. Doing so will be reassuring for both of you. Simply knowing the ABCs of what to do and what not to do (and why) will help ease anxiety.

While it’s true that we can’t protect our children forever from the suffering that life can bring, at least we can use steps like these to ease them into reality.

Linda Acredolo, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, UC Davis
Co-Founder, The Baby Signs® Program
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