Yesterday’s horrific and senseless mass-shooting in Las Vegas, the deadliest in American history, has left people shaken and questioning. Sometimes it seems as if tragedy stalks us all. News networks broadcast a never-ending stream of sinister events: frightening terror attacks in France and England, devastating hurricanes in the Caribbean, destructive earthquakes in Mexico, epic floods in Bangladesh, and the haunted faces of refugees escaping Syria. Even we adults, with our years of experience and mental filters firmly in place, can feel overcome by helplessness and despair in the face of such a media bombardment.
So how does news reporting about tragedies such as these effect children?
Children may be repeatedly exposed to images of graphic violence and death on television, the internet and newspapers. If they don’t see it via the news media, they will very likely hear about it from friends, or overhear family members discussing it. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, “Seeing and hearing about local and world events, such as natural disasters, catastrophic events, and crime reports, may cause children to experience stress, anxiety, and fears.” *
How can you help children navigate fear, and what can you say to a child who wonders, ‘If those people aren’t safe, am I? What if it happens to me?’
I’ve worked in disaster scenarios – earthquakes and chemical explosions – helping kids, parents and teachers answer such difficult questions. Here are a few of the things we’ve found that can help:
DO try to monitor and limit your child’s exposure to the news, especially graphic and disturbing images of violence and destruction. Let kids know that first responders are doing their best to help the people involved. As dear Mr. Rogers of television fame said, when you are in trouble ‘always look for the helpers’. There is great comfort in knowing they are there, so teach your child about the bravery of those working on the front lines of tragedy, and how to recognize them.
DON’T keep quiet if your child wants to talk about what happened. It may take speaking about a frightening event many times before a child (or adult) can fully process what happened. Young children need to be repeatedly assured that while scary things can happen, you and others are there to help keep them safe. Don’t push the subject, but let them talk about it when needed, and reassure them that they are not alone.
DO let your child know that it’s normal to feel frightened or angry when terrible things happen to us or others. Young children can experience a flood of powerful emotions that may prove difficult for them to handle and understand. Let them know that such feelings are normal, and there are things they can do to help themselves feel better. Self-soothing skills such as deep-breathing, singing, or reaching out to others, can help us manage strong feelings. Knowing there is something we can do to take control can help. Kids take their emotional cues from the adults in their lives, so take the time you need to manage your own strong feelings, and reach out for help if and when you need it.
DON’T’s allow yourself to feel powerless in the face of grief and loss that is out of your control to fix. You can’t “make it all better” for your child, or anyone else, but you can be there for them while they grieve, and that is a very powerful thing. Support others in their loss, for this is what will truly help them.
As horrible as tragedy truly is, it can bring with it the discovery that we are understood and not alone. It is within our power to give children that valuable knowledge, and in such difficult times as these, I’d say that’s good news for all of us.
* The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; Facts for Families # 67; 2002; aacap.org