How to help your child cope with tragedy

High-profile acts of violence, particularly in schools, can confuse and alarm children who may feel worried that they, their friends, or loved ones are at risk. They will look to adults for information and guidance on how to react. Below are some steps to assist adults in helping students process tragic events.

  1. Emphasize that schools are very safe. Validate their feelings and explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs. School staff work with parents and public safety providers (local police and fire departments, emergency responders, hospitals, etc.) to keep students safe. The school practices safety drills, including lockdown drills for hostile intruders, to be ready for emergencies. 
  2. Be patient and available to talk. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide and when to provide it. 
  3. Keep explanations developmentally appropriate.
    1. Early elementary school children need simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give simple examples of school safety like reminding children about exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.
    2. Upper elementary and early middle school children may be more vocal and ask questions about whether they are truly safe and what is being done in school to keep them safe. Every school has a thorough school safety plan and safeguards put in place to keep students safe.
    3. Upper middle school and high school students may have more information about an event as they are commonly able to access information independently of adults and have access to the internet and television. Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines, communicating any personal safety concerns to a school administrator, and accessing support for emotional needs.
  4. Review safety procedures. This should include procedures and safeguards at school and at home. Help children identify at least one adult at school and in the community to whom they can go to if they feel threatened or at risk. In addition to class teachers, we have subject teachers, paraprofessionals, admin staff, afterschool staff, and counselors, who also create caring and trusting relationships with students. 
  5. Observe children’s emotional state. Some children may not express their concerns verbally, and changes in behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns can indicate a child’s level of anxiety or discomfort. Children who have had a past traumatic experience of personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others. Seek the help of a mental health professional if you are at all concerned.
  6. Limit exposure to media. Developmentally inappropriate information can cause anxiety or confusion, particularly in young children. Adults also need to be mindful of the content of conversations that they have with each other in front of children, even teenagers, and limit their exposure to angry comments that might be misunderstood. We have found that children feel less anxious when they don’t  have auditory or visual access to radio, social media, TV news, so please try to remain cognizant of what your children may be hearing or seeing.
  7. Maintain a normal routine. While it can be difficult to digest this horrible tragedy, it is encouraged to create a sense of safety by returning to normal, predictable routines as soon as possible. Ensure that children (and you!) get plenty of sleep, regular meals, and exercise. 

Although the hope of violence ending, the reality is, it won’t. Though you do not want your child living in Fear, it is another conversation to have with your child. If they live a fear-based life, they will not experience life as it was meant. While all of this is a lot to take in, remember that you yourself lived through countless tragedies; reflect on those feelings you at during those intense times, this will help you in your conversations.

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