Ways to Handle Tragedy with Children

Co-Authored by: Ali Wein, LCSW and Michelle Winterstein, LCSW

What happens when a tragedy occurs? When the unthinkable happens, both adults and children access their darkest fears and concernsboy watching the news about national, community, and personal safety. Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event and can be expressed in a variety of ways. Children may display acute signs of anxiety such as excessive worry, school refusal, sleeplessness, nightmares, headaches, stomachaches, loss of interest in previous enjoyed activities, changes in relationships with peers, and changes in school performance. It is important to note that children may appear unhinged by trauma initially, but may demonstrate more delayed symptoms of anxiety after the exposure to the tragedy.

How To Approach A Tragedy With Your Child:

In the aftermath of tragic events, children benefit most from validation of their feelings, opportunities to talk and be listened to, and reassurance that many people are working hard to ensure their safety (i.e. policemen, teachers, doctors, volunteers, parents, and teachers.) When managing your child’s reaction to tragedy, first and foremost, it is imperative for the parent to understand their own thoughts and feelings regarding the event. Getting any parental concerns and anxieties under wraps will be essential prior to managing children’s anxieties and concerns. Children, by nature, are dependent and vulnerable and rely upon their parents to exude a sense of control, protection, and care. If a parent is highly reactive to their own anxieties, children can pick up on this and in turn, will mirror their parent’s anxieties. If a parent is calm and objective, the child can experience a solid sense that their parent is in control of the situation and give the child permission to feel safe and cared for.

Talk about the event. Not talking about the event can make things even more threatening in your child’s mind. Validate and acknowledge children’s fears and insecurities regarding the tragedy. Provide outlets and opportunities for your child to express their feelings and insecurities. Brushing over their feelings of sadness , anger, fear, and anxiety with “don’t feel this way” and “don’t worry, it won’t ever happen to you” can prove invalidating and deny the child the opportunity to effectively process their responses. Acknowledging your child’s fears and concerns will help them process the event and encourage self expression.

Limiting screen time to avoid continued media coverage regarding the event will help to reduce anxiety and re-traumatization. The most important part of dealing with trauma and tragedy is to process your and your child’s interpretation of the event, not the actual facts and details (i.e. how many people died, who killed them, the severity of this national tragedy, how it compares to other national tragedies, etc.). Exploring with your child how they interpret the event and what they think has happened is more therapeutic than rehashing the gory details. Furthermore, it is important to clear up any misconceptions your child may have as they will likely be hearing bits of information from various sources.

Uncontrollable tragedies occur and have the power to threaten our perceptions about our safety and understanding of our world around us. Providing a safe space to process the feelings that our children have is the best way to acknowledge the legitimacy of their concerns and regain a sense of normalcy.


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