Supporting our Children After a Tragedy
Reassure children that they are safe. Emphasize that schools are very safe. Validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.
Make time to talk. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. Be patient. Children and youth do not always talk about their feelings readily, so be available but you do not have to require a conversation.
Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate.
- Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them.
- Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.
- Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They may share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines, communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.
Review safety procedures. This should include procedures and safeguards at school and at home. Help children identify at least one adult at school and in the community to whom they go if they feel threatened or at risk.
Observe children’s emotional state. Some children may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns can indicate a child’s level of anxiety or discomfort. In most children, these symptoms will ease with reassurance and time. However, some children may be at risk for more intense reactions. Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others. Seek the help of a mental health professional if you are at all concerned.
Limit television viewing of these events. Limit television viewing and be aware if the television is on in common areas. Developmentally inappropriate information can cause anxiety or confusion, particularly in young children. Adults also need to be mindful of the content of conversations that they have with each other in front of children, even teenagers, and limit their exposure to details and comments that might be misunderstood.
Maintain a normal routine. Keeping to a regular schedule can be reassuring and promote physical health. Ensure that children get plenty of sleep, regular meals, and exercise. Encourage them to keep up with their schoolwork and extracurricular activities but don’t push them if they seem overwhelmed.
RESOURCES FOR TALKING WITH CHILDREN AFTER A TRAGEDY
Our hope is to provide resources and tools that you may use for your own support and for conversations with your children.
The American Psychological Association (APA) has tips for managing your own distress following a mass shooting including:
- Reaching out for support from other adults (friend or professional)
- Honoring your feelings and taking time for yourself, especially if you’re experiencing personal loss or grief
- Limiting your amount of media coverage of these events
- Finding ways to help in your community
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) tips for parents and educators offers suggestions to talk with children about violence.
The Child Mind Institute has prepared trauma resources to aid parents, educators, and other adults in talking to children and adolescents about potentially traumatic events.
Call the National Parent Helpline at 1-855-4A PARENT (1-855-427-2736) to get emotional support from a trained Advocate. They are available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Helping Children Cope With Terrorism from NASP offers tips for families and educators. Translations of this handout are available in Amharic, Chinese, French, Korean, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
Common Sense Media has suggestions on how to talk to kids about school shootings in a way that’s age-appropriate and helps them feel safe again.
Very Well Family provides open-ended questions to discuss school shootings with your child.