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Helping Kids Cope with Tragedies

Get Help Guiding Your Child Through Difficult Events

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Updated April 17, 2013

A tragic event, like the bombing at the Boston Marathon, is difficult for everyone. It may be especially difficult for children, who have already had to deal with other tragic events in recent years, such as school shootings, the earthquake in Haiti, tsunami in Indonesia, Hurricane Katrina, terrorist bombings, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The bombing in Boston also might be very difficult for children, as it comes fairly close to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. These children are likely already worried about the possibility that something may happen and a parent or other family member might get hurt and not return home. Seeing a tragedy, like the loss of life in the bombings, might reinforce their fears.

What should you do to help your child cope with an event like that? That mostly depends on how close your child is to the event. If a child lost a parent or other family member, or if they are friends with someone that lost someone in the tragedy, then they will likely need extra, and perhaps professional help, unlike kids who had no direct connection.

General Tips for Coping with a Tragedy

At first, it is usually best to limit your child's exposure to the tragic event. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you should not let "children or adolescents view footage of traumatic events over and over" and that they "should not watch these events alone." For younger children, especially toddlers and preschool age children, it may be best to just insulate your child from the events. Turn off the television or restrict access to channels with news coverage. Many pictures on TV are too graphic for younger children. And allow older children to watch a limited amount of television coverage while accompanied by an adult who can talk about what has happened with the child.

Communicating about the event is also important. You can begin by providing age appropriate and limited facts. If you think your child wants more details, consider asking a follow up question or wait for him to ask additional questions.

You should also make sure that your children understand that they're safe and that their friends, parents and other family members are safe. An event like this can lead to children to be afraid and also begin to fear the loss of their parents. Some difficult questions that may come up and which you should be prepared to answer include: "will I die?" or "will mommy or daddy die?." It is important to be direct and honest. You can tell him that people normally don't die until they are very old and reassure him that while everyone does die, you will all live a long time.

Other tips on dealing with your child's fears include:

  • Respect your child's feelings and fears. It is not helpful to use put downs, such as "your being a baby for being afraid of that," or to try and ignore the things that he is afraid of.
  • Ask him why he is afraid and then talk about it. This can be especially helpful if there was a triggering event.
  • Don't be overprotective and let him avoid all of the things that he is afraid of, but you also don't want to try and force your child into doing something he is afraid to do.
  • Don't overreact, so that your extra attention reinforces your child's reactions.
  • Remind him of other things or times in the past that he was afraid of, and for which he is no longer has fears.
  • Again, reassure and comfort your child as you help him to face his fears. In the long run, it is also not helpful to teach your child that it is alright to avoid everything that he is afraid of.
Children directly affected by this tragedy and other children who are having difficulty coping, including those who develop sleep, school or behavior problems or withdrawal from friends and family, should get professional help. Your pediatrician, a child psychologist, and/or a child and adolescent psychiatrist can be good resources for these children.



Sources:

American Academy of Pediatrics. Talking to Children About Disasters. Accessed April 2013.

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