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Talking to children and teens after a tragedy

Adapted by Maureen Jenkins, Web Editor, from article written by Lucy Schrader, Building Strong Families Program Coordinator; Sherry Nelson, Human Development Specialist; Tom Fuhrman, Human Development Specialist, University of Missouri Extension

 

After a national tragedy, such as a terrorist attack, mass shooting or natural disaster, people are confused and upset. We are then exposed to 24/7 media coverage and public feedback about such events on TV, the Internet and social media. We, as adults, have to quickly process the event and monitor how we react so that we can determine how to broach the subject with children and teens in order to help them cope.

 

Age and development will make a significant difference in what youth understand and how they deal with the situation. The following table shows different ages and stages and how they might react to the event. Some suggestions for specific actions to take are listed below the table.

 

Age

Developmental stages

Possible response after a tragedy

Infants and toddlers

Do not understand world events

Respond to the moods of those around them and to change of routines

Preschoolers: ages 3 to 5

Have active imaginations

Will think an event is happening again and again when they see repeated showings of an event in the media

Do not always know the difference between make-believe and reality

May replay the event over and over, either in play or have upsetting nightmares of monsters or bad things, or trying to save someone

Most of what they know is based on what they see and hear (may not understand time, distance, location)

May not know where an event is that is shown in the media

Have emotions but cannot always control them

Worry something bad is going to happen to them or their family

School agers: ages 6 to 12

Beginning to understand some of what they see and hear

Worry about their families and friends

Like rules

React with fear and anxiety

Interested in learning the how or why of a tragedy

May still have a hard time accepting or fully understanding explanations (so they will ask questions again)

Teens: ages 13 to 17

Trying to develop who they are, what they stand for and what they believe

May be preoccupied with their thoughts and actions

Abstract thinkers — can understand actions and consequences

Sense of safety and security is threatened

May not want to talk about feelings or what they are thinking about

 

Friends and peers are very important

May worry about others

Feel invincible (that bad things cannot happen to them — those things happen to others)

May engage in risky behavior

 

May see this as an opportunity to get involved or to volunteer (to collect food and supplies, for example)

 

Each individual’s reaction will be different. Age and developmental stage are important factors, but being aware of your child's personality and emotional state is equally as important. For example, if your child is prone to anxiety or stress, it may be best to limit some of the information provided and it will be important to balance facts with reassurances.

 

Here are some things you can do to help children or teens after a tragedy:

 

  • Limit media exposure: If possible, limit how much youth are watching or accessing the media about tragedies. The news often repeats coverage of a tragedy or disaster and the Internet allows for such information to be available any time. Repeated exposure, however, can affect youth in a negative way (repeating the disaster, bringing up fear or anxiety, bad dreams, etc.). Very young children think the tragedy is happening again, and do not understand that it is just the coverage being replayed.
  • Be open: Let them ask questions and try to be as supportive as possible. It is better not to force them to talk until they are ready.
  • Give honest information and answers: Don't try to pretend that the event is not real or serious. Do your best in giving answers. If you make things up, children and teens may not trust you or your reassurances in the future.
  • Use words and descriptions that they understand: Try to be clear and give explanations that fit the age of the child. Young children need brief, simple information and they need to be reassured. Older children may need more facts to address their questions, to reassure them and to help separate reality from fantasy or rumor. Teens will have strong opinions on what caused the event and how to prevent such tragedies. For all youth, encourage them to verbalize their thoughts and feelings, and engage in listening and discussing with them.
  • Be prepared to repeat explanations and information: Some children may ask the same question over and over. They are trying to process the situation and they may not understand how something like this happened. Try to be patient, answer and reassure.
  • Acknowledge and validate thoughts, feelings and reactions: Family members may be struggling with all that has happened. Remember to let everyone in the family know that their questions and concerns are important and appropriate. If you don't know how to respond, you might say: “That is a good question. I wonder about that, too. Let’s see if we can find someone who can help us get the answer.” It’s also important for adults to acknowledge, understand and work through thoughts, feelings and reactions.
  • Help youth find ways to express themselves: Children may not be able to express their feelings into words. Let them draw pictures, make things out of play dough, write or tell stories, play with toys or make songs that tell what they are thinking and feeling, or keep a journal to draw or write words.
  • Focus on what you can do: You may not have all of the answers. Try to focus on what you can do as a family. Some children or families may feel reassured by doing something positive for the victims, which could range from saying a prayer together, writing letters of support, or collecting food or supplies if needed. Utilize resources in your community if you and your family need help coping after a tragedy.
  • Be patient: Children may regress in behaviors or act out. A child might be potty trained and start wetting the bed again, or a young child may start biting. School-age children might not want to go to school or leave the home. Teens may say they are OK, but then argue and yell. Try to be patient and tell them that it is a tough time, but things will calm down.
  • Watch for other symptoms: Children and teens (and adults) may show worry and stress through physical signs, like stomach problems and headaches or chewing on their fingernails, etc. Also, keep in mind that stress and problems may not show up immediately. Children and teens may show behaviors and problems several weeks or months after the event. Maintain awareness of the possible signs or responses to look for, as detailed in the chart above.

 

For older youth and teens, asking questions and listening to them can be very helpful. When they are sharing ideas, be sure to listen and try not to fix what they are going through or finish the answers. Here are some ways to bring up or continue the conversation:
 

  • What were your first thoughts when this happened?
  • How do you feel about what happened?
  • I am really sad this happened.
  • I know a lot of people wonder if a tragedy like this will happen here. Can you help me with our safety plan so we know what to do?
  • I would like to contribute to the relief effort. What are your ideas?
  • How would you like to help your friends?

 

Consider getting help from a doctor or mental health professional if a child or teen:
 

  • Has ongoing sleep problems
  • Has constant thoughts or worries that keep the child from playing, going to school or doing usual activities
  • Continues to have fears about death, leaving parents or going to school
  • Is preoccupied with questions or concerns about tragedies or disasters
  • Engages in risky behaviors (e.g., uses alcohol, drugs or excessive amounts of caffeine)

 

For additional resources and information, see:

 

To find local Missouri mental health centers, call the Missouri Department of Mental Health at 800-364-9687 or use the office locator on their website at http://dmh.mo.gov/.

 

 

References:
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. (December 2008). Facts for Families: Helping children after a disaster. Retrieved on June 28, 2011 from http://www.aacap.org/

 

American Psychiatric Association. (2011). Talking to children about disasters. Retrieved on June 28, 2011 from https://www.psychiatry.org/

 

Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN). Children and disasters. Retrieved on July 6, 2011 from http://eden.lsu.edu/Topics/Families/Children/Pages/default.aspx

 


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