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Helping kids cope with tragedy

As yet another school shooting tragedy dominates the airwaves, parents may be concerned about the impact on their children. Peter Stavinoha, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at Children’s Medical Center Dallas, stresses that parents can help their children cope with fears and anxieties, such as being available when children want to talk and reducing children’s exposure to news coverage and discussions of the events. “Rather than forcing them to talk, be near them, so that when they are ready to talk you are available,” Stavinoha says.

Monitor the news your kids watch

But parents also can reduce a child’s anxiety and fear by monitoring exposure to the news and images of the disaster, says Stavinoha. “The scenes will continue to be highly disturbing to children,” he adds.
Stavinoha also reminds parents of the importance of modeling healthy emotional coping during stressful times. This does not mean hiding one’s feelings; rather, parents should stay aware of their reactions and show their children how they deal with the tragedy in a healthy manner. “Children have vivid imaginations, and the fears exhibited by parents may be greatly exaggerated in the minds of children,” he says.

Fear is a normal reaction

It is common in a tragic situation for a child to feel a loss of control and stability. Regular routines such as family meals should be adhered to as much as possible, because this helps give a sense that things remain predictable and secure at home. “Parents need to help children put words to their feelings,” Stavinoha says. “They should be ready to help their kids articulate their fears and anxieties. This helps a child feel like he or she has been understood.”

Give honest, factual answers

Stavinoha says the best way to help children understand tragic events is to be honest and give factual answers to their questions, but not overwhelm them with information that they may not understand. “Stick to answering their questions at a developmentally appropriate level while giving the child plenty of opportunities to discuss the event,” he says. “Expect that many questions will be repetitious and redundant as children try to make sense of this. Do not deny how serious the situation is. Particularly for older children, it is important to acknowledge the significance of their reactions and anxieties.”

Find support

As for parents, Stavinoha stresses acknowledging anxieties and fears raised by school violence. They should seek support from family, friends, church, or other social and emotional supports. Parents can model healthy emotional coping for their children during this time. This does not mean hiding one’s feelings; rather, parents should stay aware of their reactions and show their children how they deal with this situation in a healthy manner.

In the short term, while the media coverage of the tragedy at Northern Illinois University plays out, Stavinoha suggests participating in some activities that help put children and families back in control in an otherwise chaotic situation. For example, giving to causes that help families affected by the school violence can provide a feeling of empowerment so that children are not feeling so helpless about the situation.

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