Helping Students Cope with Tragedy in the News
From chemical weapons attacks in Syria to mass shootings in our own country, today’s 24/7 news organizations paint a scary picture of today’s world. As director of counseling for Connections Academy and a parent, I know we face some tough conversations with our kids each time mass tragedy grabs the headlines and wounds our hearts. How do we help children cope in the face of these tragedies? How do we balance reassurance with honesty, and empathy with resilience?
To help parents with these difficult conversations, I’d like to share some advice and resources from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Mayo Clinic, and the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).
Reassuring Children They Are Safe
In the immediate aftermath of widely reported tragedy, children may feel fearful, sad, angry, or anxious. Some may even feel that their own safety is in jeopardy. Before we can begin a conversation, we have to reassure our children that they are safe and secure through our own actions and reactions. The NASP and the Mayo Clinic both suggest that parents and caring adults do the following things:
- Remain calm. Fear and anxiety can be contagious. With children taking their cues on how to react to tragedy from you, try to maintain a sense of calm. You can be honest about feeling sad or angry, but don’t overburden your children with intense emotions that can increase their anxiety.
- Avoid excessive media coverage. From past tragedies, we know that 24/7 news coverage will feature disturbing and repetitive images that can increase anxiety, while often providing little new information. Practice some self-care. Limit your own news consumption, your stress, and the possibility that your kids will see or overhear something unsuitable.
- Maintain family routines for meals, bedtime, homework, and extracurricular activities. This normalcy and structure reassures children that they are safe and life goes on.
Honest, Age-Appropriate Communication Is Key
Adults often try to protect children from knowledge of disaster and pain. But if we don’t explain these events at home, our children will hear stories online, at their scout meetings, in the park, or around the neighborhood, where fears and misunderstanding can be amplified.
We need to allow space for the conversation and answer children’s questions honestly and in an age-appropriate
Here are some general guidelines that may help:
Consider in advance what’s appropriate for your child to know, based on age, maturity, and sensitivity. In general, the National Association for School Psychologists notes that:
- Early elementary school children will need brief, simple information balanced by reassurances that their daily lives will not be disrupted.
- Upper elementary and early middle school children will need more reassurance that they are personally safe and may need assistance separating reality from fantasy.
- Upper middle school and high school students will want to discuss the root causes of the event, how to prevent future tragedies, and what they can do to help the victims.
Create opportunities for conversation, but don’t force it. Your children will ask questions when and where they’re ready. Whether it is over the dinner table or during a car ride, you can create the space for these conversations to take place: spending more one-on-one time together, asking open-ended questions about what your children already know and how they feel, and being alert to signs that they’re ready to talk.
Listen carefully and answer questions honestly. In our desire to comfort, parents sometimes share more information than our children want or need at the moment. Instead, listen carefully to your children’s questions and limit your answers to the questions at hand. In other words, let them guide the direction of the conversation, while you listen for any underlying issues or emotions that may need to be addressed later.
Most importantly, never lie to your kids about what’s happened. That can lead to distrust. Instead, choose the details you feel comfortable sharing and that are age-appropriate.
Encourage your kids to express their feelings; respect those feelings. Never try to dictate how your children should feel about such a tragedy or belittle their feelings. Instead, encourage them to express their feelings, and let them know it’s okay to feel as they do. If your children are reluctant to express themselves verbally, encourage them to express their feelings in other ways, such as by drawing, writing, or even play-acting.
Monitor their exposure to social media and news coverage. Make sure your children are not being exposed to misinformation or repeated graphic images of the tragedy. There’s nothing to be gained from it and much to lose.
Be alert to behavioral changes. If you notice changes in your child’s behavior, appetite, sleeping patterns, or social relationships, you may want to consider reaching out for additional help. Your pediatrician or your school counselor is a good place to . Students of online schools may have access to counseling; for example, all Connections Academy®–supported schools have at least one licensed school counselor on staff. If available through your employer, you may also want to consider contacting your employee assistance program.
As a school counselor and a parent, I hope you’ll never need these resources or advice, but it’s important to be prepared to face that next tough conversation. For future reference, here are some useful articles from organizations that regularly update their information to address recent events.
- “Restoring a Sense of Safety in the Aftermath of a Shooting: Tips for Parents and Professionals,” the National Child Traumatic Stress Network
- “Helping Children Cope with Terrorism: Tips for Parents and Educators,” National Association of School Psychologists
- “Helping Children Cope: Tips for Talking about Tragedy,” Mayo Clinic
Parents, how have you helped reassure your children that they are safe and secure? Share your stories in the comments.