How to Help Children Cope with Events that Involve Violence and Terrorism

With the recent shooting in Orlando, once again parents are challenged with the task of how to talk with our child/children about these horrible events that even we can barely comprehend or think about.

Tragedies that involve local and international acts of terrorism and violence can have a huge impact on our society and how we communicate with our children. However, the extent of the impact depends on the age of the child, proximity of tragedy, direct or indirect impact, and exposure to news coverage.

We are jolted by the reality that we cannot shield them completely and cannot solve all our children’s problems. However, the foundation for helping our children begins with our relationship with them. Building and maintaining a solid and close relationship can soften the blow of fears and anxieties which can ebb and flow throughout life. The first step is to remind ourselves that talking is the great connector. Through our conversations with our children, we can ask questions to determine how much fantasy and mis-information a child is using to fill in the blanks.

Encourage your child to talk with you by remaining compassionate, watch for body language and know that it is often our job to be clever at coaxing information out of them. Use statements such as “I have been thinking about, remember the time….Your right aunt Sue is sick ; You have probably heard a lot of kids talking about….”

Demonstrate you can comprehend what your child is telling you so that you can deal with the problem. Learn to read between the lines and do not take things at face value. Lastly, focus on coming up with solutions or strategies with your children when they are worried. We can make suggestions and ask for their ideas too.

When we decide to talk with our child about a tragedy or event a parent must consider that situations vary and that our approach may involve waiting to see if our child comes to us and asks questions or we bring up the event. This depends on  the amount of destruction, gruesome nature of the event, loss of a family member or friend related to event,  direct or indirect connection, and the age of your child.

Developmental considerations

-Pre-school age children will primarily be coping by taking cues from parents and how they are reacting, any changes in routines and the parents moods.

-Young children tend to be more self-focused and will worry about something happening to them or fear of losing a parent. Separation anxiety and fears of the unknown can get triggered.

-For older elementary school age children and teens there can be a focus more on fears around physical safety. Children at this age may have more questions about causes and opinions about the situation.

Some suggestions

  • Model calm and control; avoid appearing anxious and frightened. Children take their cues from the adults in their life. You can still let them know your sad but not in an overwhelming way. Make sure you give yourself an outlet and space to process your own feelings so you can be emotionally present for your child.
  • Take your cues from your child; invite her to first tell you everything she has heard and knows about the tragedy and how she feels. Give her the opportunity to ask questions. Your goal is to give age appropriate answers without excessive gory details.
  • Break the news to your child if you feel your child will most likely learn about events due to their age, exposure in school and has affected your family directly. Always speak calmly, at eye level and be physically close.
  • Reassure children they are safe; and the adults in their lives too (if true) and discuss the facts that prove they are safe. Children are more likely to focus on how it affects them, as they are egocentric. Talk about how rare the event is and what safety measures are in place. For example, “ We learn from the event to prevent this from happening again.”
  • Be developmentally appropriate. Don’t volunteer too much information, answer clearly and honestly. Being available to your child is what matters and the topic cannot be answered in one session and your child may need to return to it many times.
  • Observe your child’s emotional state. Depending on a child’s age they may present anxiety, grief or fear through fears of separation, clingy, aggression, anger, trouble concentrating, bad dreams, stomach aches and school refusal. Children at greater risk have suffered another traumatic event or struggle with depression/anxiety.
  • Remind them of trustworthy people in charge; Describe the police, firefighters, doctors and emergency workers who are helping care for people.
  • Memorialize those who have been lost. Drawing pictures, planting trees, sharing stories, making cards, sending letters and doing volunteer services helps children feel empowered and less helpless. Coming together as a community can be a comfort and focusing on helping others can thrust emotions in a positive direction.
  • Let children know its ok to feel upset let children have different outlets to talk. Young children may use doll play to express how they feel and older kids may want to look at newspapers and want a lot of details about the event. Respect your child’s thoughts and feelings even if they are different from yours.
  • Tell children the truth in an age appropriate way. Help your child learn the simple facts and dispel rumors and false information.
  • Stick to the facts. Do not embellish or speculate about what happened or whether another attack may occur. Do not dwell on scale and scope of tragedy for young children.
  • Continue with positive experiences and events.
  • Avoid placing blame. If the tragedy was caused by human violence or error, be careful not to blame a cultural, racial or ethnic group, or people who have mental illnesses.
  • Do not discuss events constantly or expose young children to the news. Wait until they go to sleep.
  • Be careful with news and media The news is very graphic now and there is no reason school age children need to watch the news. Maybe some exposure around 11- 12 and with the presence of an adult. Do not be glued to the TV.
  • If your child seems worried play with them. Do an activity and teach them to counter worried thoughts with a brave thought or strong thought.
  • Spend extra time together. Special attention can foster your child’s sense of security. Spend a little more time reading to your child or tucking him or her in at night. If your child is having trouble sleeping, allow him or her to sleep with a light on or to sleep in your room for a short time. Extra cuddles might help, too.
  • If you are worried about your child’s reaction contact their teacher.
  • If you are worried about other kids and how they may disclose or discuss the event, all you can do is keep your ears open to what your child is hearing or saying at home. Also, watch behavior and mood and look at play themes. Then you can address what your child knows and employ the discussed suggestions. Do not take anything at face value.
  • Maintain a normal routine.
  • Monitor your own stress level.

When should you worry?

Watch for certain behavior and symptoms such as separation anxiety, increased aggression, mood changes, disinterest in schoolwork, fearful of doing usual things, wanting to stay home, obsessive thinking and questions, irritable in class, clinginess.

If your child continues to display behaviors for more than two to four weeks, he or she might need more help coping. If your child has experienced previous trauma, remember that he or she might be at greater risk of a severe reaction. If you’re concerned about your child’s reaction, talk to a mental health provider.


Image source