The innocence of youth is fleeting, and in the wake of all-too-frequent reports of tragedy from shootings, terrorism, and natural disasters, it feels impossible to preserve.
Children today can easily access painstaking details, eyewitness accounts, and vivid images and videos of breaking tragedies through social media and news reports. What doesn’t flow from these channels reaches them in classrooms and schoolyards where childhood chatter is often rife with misinformation and speculation. This reality underscores the critically important role that parents and caretakers can play in helping children to understand and process devastating events that, at times, are even challenging for adults to bear.
The impact of tragedy on children varies greatly based on a child’s age, temperament, and developmental level.
“Children have a different intellectual understanding of these types of events and process them differently than adults,” said Dr. Bob Lichtenstein, director of the school of psychology doctoral program at William James College in Newton. “Young children may not appreciate the distance away that something has occurred or the level of threat. They may believe that an event is likely to happen to them because it’s something that happened to children like them. Adolescents may be better able to understand what happened, yet have other things on their minds to crowd it out. Some can seem oddly oblivious to it. Or, the reverse happens — an event triggers anxious or fearful associations, especially if they are already concerned about threats to their well-being or have been exposed to trauma, violence, serious injury, or death.”
Mental health experts agree that it is natural for children to show some type of reaction to high-profile tragedies, and most will be upset initially then see those feelings pass. Dr. Kathleen Trainor, a behavioral therapist specializing in anxiety in children and author of Calming Your Anxious Child: Words to Say and Things to Do, suggests that parents and caretakers keep close watch for children who still show signs of distress after a couple of weeks.
“Signs of distress in young children can include regressive behavior, clinginess, nightmares, and sometimes bedwetting,” Trainor said. “Older children can also experience nightmares or they will talk about the event repeatedly and seem unable to put it to rest. Adolescents, on the other hand, may not talk as much, but may act out or exhibit aggressive behavior, use alcohol or drugs, and not admit what’s really bothering them. Children of all ages may also share physical complaints (headache, stomachache, etc.) when there is no medical reason. They don’t always have the words to express how they feel, but they do know how to say, ‘I don’t feel well’ or ‘My stomach or head hurts.’”
There is some expert debate about the benefit of talking proactively to children of all ages about tragic events. Some suggest that children younger than 5 do not need to be told about these events. Others recognize that even very young children hear and see things in our connected society, and that there is great benefit to being one step ahead of children in the wake of high-profile events. The following expert tips will help guide parents who see the value in engaging with their children about the unspeakable events that impact us all.
• Take cues from your child. “Address the event in an open-ended way,” Trainor suggested. “Start by asking your children what they’ve heard about it (from friends, at school, etc.). You can then correct what they have heard if they are misinformed, and let them know that you are happy to answer their questions. At the same time, you don’t want to force a child to talk about things they don’t want to talk about. Kids are kids, and many are not as distressed as you’d expect.”
Aaron VanDeKoppel, elementary school counselor and regional trainer for ALICE, a safety training program focused on active shooter events and practiced in many schools, echoes Trainor’s recommendation.
“Gauge where your children are related to an event and meet them there,” VanDeKoppel added. “It comes down to knowing your child, what is developmentally appropriate for them, and how they take in and interpret information when you have a conversation with them. It’s also important for parents to understand their own perspectives, concerns, and triggers about an event. Children learn about the world through parents, and we have to be careful how and what we communicate to them and that we’re not projecting our concerns onto them.”
Trainor reminds that it is OK for parents to show their children that they are upset about an event. However, children should not become a sounding board for an adult’s anxiety or the primary support for the parent. Anxiety is contagious, according to Trainor, and parents who are experiencing heightened anxiety about an event should seek help from a friend or mental health professional outside their immediate family network.
• Have a plan for the information you will share. “Parents should use simpler messages with younger children and focus on being reassuring,” Lichtenstein said. “For example, ‘This [event] is something that happened far away — you don’t really need to worry about it.’ Adolescents, on the [other] hand, will want to know particulars. It’s helpful for them to hear that there have been only [five] similar incidents across the country. They will be able to apply this type of information to their understanding of the event.”
Children of all ages benefit most from reassurance that much is being done — by parents, caretakers, schools, etc. — to ensure their continued safety. “This shifts focus from the thing that happened to all of the good that people are doing to help and prevent something similar from happening again,” Trainor noted. “It is particularly useful to empower children — especially teenagers — to join a community organization or do something to help the victims.”
• Manage media exposure. Studies that examined the impact of television viewing in the wake of 9/11 confirmed that children, in particular, can be traumatized by seeing images of mass tragedy. Children with the greatest exposure to images are more likely to suffer from anxiety. In the wake of the November 2015 Paris attacks, the American Academy of Pediatrics reinforced the lasting effects of violence on children (even if only exposed to it through the news media) and the importance of parents and caretakers limiting what children see in the wake of an event.
Adolescents and even middle-schoolers who are learning about current events may, however, be eager to watch news reports to better understand what occurred. Some experts suggest co-viewing of news programs so parents can help children understand what they see and make sense of it. With middle schoolers, it can be more appropriate for parents to record and preview the news and watch it with children if the content is suitable. News outlets differ in their approach to reporting on tragedy, and those that tend to showcase graphic images should be avoided.
• Boost family time. Keeping family routines intact will help maintain a sense of normalcy for children in the face of tragedy. Building in even more family time — dedicated time together at the dinner table or a more substantive bedtime ritual with smaller children — should further bolster a child’s sense of security. “Kids need connection to their parents and siblings a bit more when something terrible happens. Families can be very grounding,” Trainor said.
• Don’t hesitate to engage a professional. Children are resilient, and some bounce back from tragedy more quickly than adults. Others may struggle to move beyond an event, regardless of the support they receive from loved ones, teachers, etc. For these children (and their families), experts recommend finding a mental health professional who specializes in addressing anxiety in children and supporting parents in need of tailored guidance and tools. This village of support may be just the key to helping these children successfully weather the unspeakable events that cause children and adults alike to pause and reflect.
Parents in need of additional guidance on how to help children navigate tragic events can visit HealthyChildren.org, an online resource powered by the American Academy of Pediatrics.