Help Children Cope with Traumatic News

Children exposed to traumatic news events need parents to help them process feelings

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

As the news of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. sinks in across the nation, many parents may be struggling to find ways to help their children process the news.

Children and adolescents may go through some of the same stages of grief that adults experience in trying to make sense of the events, and they may feel fear or anxiety that such an event might threaten them.

Below are some tips from social worker Seanna Crosbie, LSW, the Director of Program Services at Austin Child Guidance Center in central Texas, in talking to your child about these events and understanding how your child is coping.

Q: What signs should you look for in your child to see if they are scared or grieving?

Seanna: Parents know their kids best and are going to be the first line of defense in helping to process a traumatic or scary event. Parents want to be aware of any changes in your child's mood, for example, if the child is more irritable or anxious than usual. Some children may start to show symptoms of separation anxiety, especially when going to school, when perhaps they did not have these fears before learning of the traumatic event.

Parents should also be aware of any changes in their child’s sleeping patterns, such as difficulty falling asleep or frequent nightmares, as well as any changes in eating habits. These are all symptoms to look for over a period of several days or weeks.

Q: How much news should you allow children to watch or shield them from?

Seanna: For young kids, it’s best not to allow them to watch media coverage of the event. In fact, I would really, really limit their media exposure because the news can be very scary to young children. You want your child to learn about this tragedy from you.

Some teenagers may want to watch the news to get the information, but parents need to be present to process whatever your adolescent is watching. So overall, limit media as much as you can, and for older kids, parents need to be available to help them process it if they do watch news coverage.

Q: How should you talk to your children about the school shooting and other tragedies involving children?

Seanna: The best thing that a parent can do is to create an open, safe space for your child to talk about their reactions to the shooting. Before doing this, however, it’s very important for the parent, themselves, to be in a calm and centered place. If you approach your child when you are reeling from fears and scared yourself, your child will pick up on that energy.

It is okay to share your feelings of sadness, but make sure to do that in moderation. Ask your child what they have heard about what happened and what questions they have. When you do share information, remember just to keep it simple. Sometimes, as adults, we want to share all of the information we have, but keep in mind your child’s developmental and emotional stage, and what they can truly process and understand.

Q: How should you respond if a child asked why someone would commit this crime?

Seanna: This is a very good question! Sometimes, parents want to have all of the answers, but it is okay to tell your child "I’m not sure why someone would do this” or “We don’t know why the person did this.” Usually when kids ask this question, just like adults, they are trying to make sense of a horrible tragedy.

Q: What should you do if your child shows fear or is afraid to go back to school?

Seanna: The first thing parents can do is to maintain your child’s regular schedule. This means the same bedtime and study schedule the night before and the same morning routine. If your child brings up concerns about going to school, again, have an open dialogue with your child about his/her feelings.

Ask your child about their specific fears and concerns. If your child is wondering about security at his/her school, or if you, as a parent, are concerned, ask the school so that you and your child can have more reassurance that the school is a secure place as it can be.

Also, keep in mind when kids start back at school this week, teachers are going to be your best advocate for helping children make the transition back to school. Most teachers, by nature, will be sensitive to the fact that children may be nervous about coming to school.

Even if a child is fearful of going to school, it's important that parents continue to send their child to school. Continue to give the message to your child that even though they are scared, things are going to be okay.

Q: What kind of activities can you do as a family to work through this?

Seanna: The most important thing is to provide your child with the space to have this conversation with you. Just sitting down, talking and validating your child's feelings is the MOST important thing. Also, make sure that you keep your normal routine – schedules and routines make most kids feel safe and that things are predictable.

Just doing what you regularly do, day-in and day-out, is going to help your child feel secure. Some kids may want to do something to help the survivors or families of the victims, such as making cards, which may also help them work out their feelings.

Q: What are symptoms of depression or PTSD to watch in your children after they learn about an event like this?

Seanna: If you see changes, extending beyond a couple of weeks, in your child’s behaviors or moods such as difficulty sleeping, changes in eating patterns, separation anxiety, prolonged sadness or school refusal, you may consider seeking outside help from a mental health professional.

Q: How long might parents expect to see the effects of seeing/hearing about an event like this in their kids?

Seanna: Again, this where the parent's judgment is best in this situation. A highly sensitive child might show anxiety or other symptoms for a week or a little longer, such as two weeks. Some kids may express some feelings of fear and sadness for a couple of days, but then move on from that quickly. At any time, if a parent needs support or more guidance in this area, they should always feel free to contact a mental health profession for help.

Review Date: 
December 16, 2012