Helping Kids Cope with Tragedy

Helping Kids Cope with Tragedy

[article written by Dr. Jennifer Gentile, PsyD, Director of Behavioral Health, Amwell]

When disasters happen, it's not uncommon for parents to grapple with how to explain the event to their children. As a parent, it’s good to be able to speak with your children about frightening events, especially if they ask questions. Here are six effective ways you can help children understand and cope with tragedy: 

1. Reassure your children that they are safe
The most important think you can do is to let them know that you will do everything you can to protect them. You might remind your child of all the police officers, nurses, firefighters, volunteers who are providing support. It can be comforting to remember that there are good people helping, even during bad times.

2. Initiate dialogue
In today’s news media environment with cell phones, tablets and laptops, it may be difficult to know what your child has seen, heard, or read about a disaster. If your child doesn't seem ready to participate in a conversation, try not to force anything. Once they do seem more open or curious, you can follow these steps to make the conversation feel more manageable. 

  • Ask your child about what they know or understand.
  • Try to explain what has happened in a simple and concise way
  • Remind them that they are safe
  • Ask them if they have any questions and listen carefully if they do
  • Answer their questions without adding any extra information that they did not ask about

3. Limit media exposure
While the media can have useful information children, they don’t often  know the difference between new events and those that are just being replayed over and over again. Try to reduce and/or eliminate the confusion by controlling how and when they are exposed to the news. 

4. Stick with a routine
There is comfort in the familiar. After a traumatic event, getting your children back to their normal routine (as much as possible), will help minimize stress, anxiety, and hopelessness.  It will also give them a sense of stability and allow them to re-engage with their daily lives, even after a tragedy. 

5. Take positive action
You can work with your children to find positive actions they can take to cope with their grief and confusion. Some ideas might include volunteering to help others, sending a donation to a disaster response organization, or making a card or letter for someone affected by the disaster.

6. Keep an eye out for unusual behavior
Potential reactions to trauma and loss may differ depending on age, but it's a good idea to seek assistance if your children exhibit the followig behavior over an extended period of time following a traumatic event:

  • Four to five years old:  Thumbsucking, bed-wetting, clinging to you and/or any other guardians, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, acting out, fear of the dark, regression in behavior, withdrawal from friends and activities.
  • Six to 10 years old: Irritability, acting out behavior, clinginess, nightmares, school avoidance, poor concentration, withdrawal from activities and friends.
  • 12-18 years old:  Sleeping and eating disturbances, agitation, increase in conflicts, physical complaints, difficult behavior and poor concentration.

7. Take care of yourself
Disaster in the news can worry adults too so it’s important for you to understand and process your own feelings about the before speaking with your children and trying to offer support. Try to notice any changes in your mood and give yourself the time and resources that are necessary to heal.

8. Talk to a provider on Amwell
Whether you'd like to speak to a doctor or therapist, you can find support from the comfort of home. 


Schedule a visit on Amwell today >

Additional resources:

  1. Ask your child’s pediatrician for a therapist they would recommend.
  2. Call the Behavioral Health phone number on the back of your insurance card.
  3. Visit https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/
  4. Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
  5. Visit psychologytoday.com

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