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Parenting Children Exposed to Tragedies

Updated: Oct 1, 2019

With the Boston Marathon explosion, Newtown School Murders, Aurora Colorado theater murders, Tucson murders, and many more, individuals are being exposed to trauma and devastation in our lives both from personal experience and media exposure.  How do we take care of ourselves, our loved ones, and help our children cope with such tragedy?

1. Pull your loved ones close and talk about grief and loss. Many parents/adults assume that if children don't bring it up, they aren't thinking about it.  Most children don't bring up the trauma because they don't have the words and don't know how.  As adults, we must find ways to broach the subject in developmentally appropriate ways.  For example, "There was something very sad that happened today in Boston at a marathon.  Do you know anything about it?"  In my experience, adults are often surprised by what children know and think about, yet it is the adult's responsibility to make sure there is on-going dialogue, support and education.  Reading books about grief and loss can be very helpful.  Discussions do not have to be long and detailed, but on-going and supportive.

2. Adults need to find out what children are hearing at school and talking with other kids about.  Many times we may protect our children at home, but they learn about tragedies at school and from the media.   Don't assume that your children don't know what's happening. Many adults know that children are often much better at maneuvering media than we are so we need to ask.  "Did anybody talk to you about what happened at the schools where children were hurt and killed?"  Children may not know the details, but have just enough information to be scared.  As a psychologist, many children were brought to my office with anxiety, sleep disturbance, school refusal behaviors, and other new concerns after each tragedy.  Parents assumed that children didn't know because the kids weren't directly impacted, but children are always listening.  It is important to wonder about what's going on with kids when parents see new issues.

3. Learn about grief and loss, mourning, and anxiety in children.  It doesn't present the same as in adults.  Children may change eating and sleeping behaviors, may become more clingy. May be scared about being along, the dark, or monsters.  When children are struggling, their issues present in ways adults might not expect.  Parents can say, "I wonder how you feel about what happened in Boston with the bomb?"

4. Check out this Apple app for Psychological First Aid.  "PFA" This app is helpful in that it talks about trauma in all ages and provides helpful education and links.  Children can be traumatized by something witnessed in the media even if not experienced directly.

5. Also remind children that "If you see something, say something.  This is an important message for us all, but especially for children and adolescents who might fear that he/she is "tattling" or "ratting out a friend."  Parents need to help children and adolescents understand the difference between tattling and asking adults for help.  Young people need to seek out adult support for more serious issues. "

6. From Mr. Rogers:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”

Remembering to keep talking with your loved ones, hug them, and talk. 

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