When a mass tragedy — such as a natural disaster, shooting or terrorist attack — comes to the attention of your child, you can help your child comprehend what’s happened, feel safe, and cope with his or her emotions by taking the following steps. Keep in mind that if your child doesn’t know about an event or hasn’t heard anything about it, it’s not always necessary to tell them.
Discussing what’s happened
It can be difficult to find the right words to address an event that may have left you feeling shocked even as a grown-up. But talking about it can help children process and cope with upsetting information. You might want to start by asking what your child already knows about the event and what questions or concerns he or she might have. Let your child’s response guide your discussion. Be a good listener.
When you talk, tell the truth and remain calm. Focus on the basics, giving your child accurate, age-appropriate information. Share your own thoughts, and remind your son or daughter that you’re there for him or her. Reassure your child that what happened isn’t his or her fault.
Some children don’t want to talk about a traumatic event, and that’s OK. Avoid pressuring them to do so. Let them come to terms with the event on their own, but monitor for any signs of distress.
If your child experiences persistent anxiety, sadness or difficulty engaging in everyday life, get help from your child’s medical provider or a mental health professional.
A child’s age will affect how he or she processes information about a tragic event and handles the stress.
Preschool children might become clingy or mimic your emotions. Some children might also revert to wetting the bed or sucking their thumbs. Avoid criticizing your child for this behavior. To talk to a preschool child about a disturbing event, get down to his or her eye level. Speak in a calm and gentle voice using words your child understands. Explain what happened and how it might affect your child. Share steps that are being taken to keep your child safe, and give plenty of hugs.
School-age children might fear going to school, have trouble paying attention in class or become aggressive for no clear reason. They might also have nightmares or other sleep problems. Consider letting your child sleep with a light on or sleep in your room for a short time. Extra cuddles might help too. When talking to your school-age child, help him or her separate fiction from reality. Reassure your child that he or she is safe.
Helping your child move forward
Regardless of your child’s age, you can help your child process what’s happened by doing the following:
- Limiting your child’s exposure to media coverage of the event
- Maintaining your child’s routines
- Encouraging your child to talk about what he or she is feeling
- Doing something for those affected by the tragedy
Feeling sad, scared and confused after a mass tragedy is normal. However, if your child continues to be distressed for more than two to four weeks or if your child has experienced previous trauma, he or she may need more help coping. Talk to your child’s medical provider about your concerns, or seek the help of a mental health professional.
This content originally appeared in the Mayo Clinic Guide to Raising a Healthy Child.
Angela C. Mattke, M.D.
Dr. Mattke is a general pediatrician at Mayo Clinic Health System in Rochester, Minnesota.