When tragedy strikes, everyone has their own way of trying to understand it. As adults, most of us have developed coping mechanisms that we use to help us. However, the majority of us are terrified at the thought of trying to explain to a young child why bad things happen sometimes. As much as we may try, we simply cannot shield children from the pain and fear that happens when they are exposed to such tragedy as natural disasters, public shootings, a friend dying from cancer, etc. What we CAN do is explain things to them in an age-appropriate way, validate their feelings and encourage them to develop their own coping strategies.
Here are some ideas to help children deal with tragedy:
- Explain things honestly in an age-appropriate way: Answer questions the child has. You only need to give details that they can understand - too much information may be overwhelming. For example, when dealing with a death in the family, a four year old may continuously ask where the family member is because they don’t have an understanding of death’s permanency; an eleven year old will know that the family member is gone but may have questions about why they died or how and if the same thing is going to happen to anyone else.
- Allow children to express their feelings and validate them: Never tell a child not to feel any certain way! Help them decipher their emotions in any way they will connect with. For example, some children like to draw their feelings; some children like to verbally describe them. Tell the child that they are allowed to feel what they feel and that you understand and are available to them.
- Help them develop coping strategies: Ask the child what they think will help them. Some children may become more attached to their caregivers in times of stress. Some children feel better when they have their favorite stuffed animal or toy. Some are happy to be able to look at a picture of a lost loved one or friend. Some need a safe place to cry or the space to draw out their emotions. Allow the child to direct their own way of coping, as long as it’s healthy. Remember- seeking help from a psychiatrist or therapist may be very helpful to the child. Don’t be ashamed of “sending your kid to therapy”.
- Reinforce calm & stability: As caregivers, we need to model this. If a child sees us dealing with tragedy in a healthy way they will naturally follow suit. Stability is key - as much as possible, keep a routine that the child knows and is familiar with and reinforce that you are here for them. Their sense of control is often lost and coupled with feelings of helplessness during tragedy but having a consistent routine helps to allow children to regain a better sense of control.
Child Mind Institute
Mental Health America