Responding to Children When Tragedy Occurs

The war in Iraq. The loss of space shuttle Columbia. The random acts of a sniper in Maryland and Virginia. The terrorist attacks of 9/11.

The loss of life and injuries from these events is devastating and frightening for us all. How can you, as a parent or guardian, deal with your child’s fear and anxiety that may not be easily expressed? There is no single or easy answer. How you respond should depend on whether members of your family have been personally involved, what your child has heard or seen on the news and the age of your child.

Tips for Helping Your Child

Children need to know there are real dangers in the world – whether it is Anthrax, smallpox, a sniper, plane crashes or children being abducted – but that grown-ups are working hard to make sure they are safe. Grown-ups in their world include parents, teachers, police officers and doctors. Of course, sensible precautions should be part of every child’s learning.

For example, turn off the TV when young children are around. Watching scenes of devastation and anguished adults is not healthy for young children. Provide reassurance that you love your child and that you are here to protect him or her. You can do that without discussing what is happening.

Here are some additional thoughts to consider:

  • Maintain your daily family routines. Anxiety is “contagious”— particularly for young children. It will be helpful for your child to see that your world is not in chaos.
  • Let your feelings show. The mixed feelings you may be experiencing — show them around your child.
  • Talk about it. Let your child know that these sorrowful feelings are normal and to be expected at a time like this.
  • Listen to your child. Ask your child how he or she feels, what seems scary, and what worries him or her the most. And then, where possible, reassure your child about your family’s safety.
  • Limit and monitor TV time. Find other activities to entertain your child — reading, watching videos, and playing games.
  • Spend time with your child. Your presence alone will be comforting and provide an opportunity to talk about what happened. Some families find worshipping together, meditating, or otherwise spending time together to be particularly comforting.
  • Express your love for your child.

What Should You Say to a Child

Determining the best way to talk about tragedies with your child will depend on your child’s ability to understand. Children who want to talk should be able to do so. Older children – those in middle and high school – should certainly have a safe place in which they can talk about their worries. But it is OK if they do not want to talk. They should not be forced into speaking about concerns.

  • If your preschooler is unaware of what is going on, do not bring it up. A preschooler may ask questions about what he or she has heard or seen. Answer questions to the best of your ability, but provide only as much detail as your child needs.
  • Before you start offering explanations to your school age child, find out what your child knows and what questions he or she has. That way, you can have a discussion about what your child is focused on.

When to Seek Professional Help

Children who are experiencing more than typical worry and display things like behavior problems, poor sleep and excessive anxiety should be carefully assessed. The first step would be for the parents to check their own communication of these worries to the child.

If parents are concerned about symptoms of anxiety or depression, they should consider seeking help for the child. Many children, but not every child, will get better if their parents convey the sense that the grown-ups are doing everything they can to make their world as safe as possible.

You should look for signs that your child may need extra help to get through this ordeal. It is normal to be troubled by these tragedies. However, your child may need professional help if his or her fears, anxieties, or changes in behaviors do not go away after a few days or persist beyond what you had anticipated. 

Children who have experienced other losses or trauma in their lives, such as the death of a close relative, physical abuse, or bullying, may have a stronger reaction to seeing and hearing about the tragedies such as the war in Iraq. Younger children may show signs of stress or aggression. Sleeping and eating habits may change as well.

If you think your child is having difficulty coping with current events, consult your child’s doctor or a mental health professional.