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Monday, December 17, 2012

Talking to Kids About Tragedy

When traumatic events occur, it is normal for children (and adults) to respond in an anxious and fearful fashion following the traumatic event. In fact, parents need to closely monitor their child’s behavior over the next few weeks since their child’s reaction would be considered normal unless it continues beyond this time. Responses to trauma vary, especially in children, and may range from: acting out behaviors, aggression, crying, tantrums, avoidance of certain places or situations perceived as “dangerous,” engaging in repetitive play that may mimic the traumatic event, and nightmares. However, it is important that parents reassure their children in a simple, factual, yet matter-of-fact fashion about the recent events in Newtown. Here are a few tips:

A) Don’t catastrophize. Hallmark features of anxiety are thoughts of uncontrollability and unpredictability of future events. Anxiety surrounding the recent tragedy is definitely normal and expected in many cases. Children may ask, “Why did someone do this?”
Although there is not an exact age for determining what specific language needs to be utilized, make sure that you explain to your child in a developmentally appropriate fashion that bad things happen in the world, although such tragedies do not occur too frequently. Parents have to be careful not to catastrophize by using extreme language such as “horrible, terrible, awful” or providing graphic details of the recent events. Many anxious parents, in particular, unintentionally model anxiety for their children by such statements, which can create a psychological vulnerability in the context of negative emotions for their child. For some children, this parent-child dynamic may increase the likelihood that they respond in an anxious or fearful fashion for other events in close proximity to the recent tragedy. To protect your child, use simple, factual, language.

B) Reassurance of their safety. Children look to their parents to convey protection and safety. Convey to your child that you and others have their best interests in mind, that you will be around when needed, and that they are in a safe place/neighborhood. As aforementioned, conveying that such events do not occur often is important for a child who is overly concerned about their safety. Having young children draw or color pictures that convey their feelings may also be useful since many children may have difficulty verbalizing their emotions. If your child is afraid to attend school, it is even more important to convey that both parents and school officials have safety plans in place that are meant to ensure your child’s safety.

C) Restrict media coverage. This is particularly important for children from a cognitive perspective. It is not essential that children know and consistently attend to every detail of the recent tragedy in Connecticut. Being continually exposed to media coverage may overestimate the base rate of such tragedies and may facilitate a sense of being out of control of personally salient events, while giving the impression that such events happen more often than is the case.

D) Establish normal routines. Again, the hallmark features of chronic anxiety are thoughts of uncontrollability and unpredictability of personally salient future events. Children should maintain their normal routine, which conveys security, control, and predictability.

E) Reinforcing your child’s safety. It is important for parents to provide their children with simple, “home plans” that their child understands. For example, reinforce curfews, explain situations that increase the likelihood of danger, know who they are with at all times, and make sure they know emergency/cell phone numbers.

F) Do not punish or reprimand your child for their reactions. Again, many children respond to tragedy with acting out behaviors and tantrums. It is important to encourage your child to express their feelings and reinforce them with physical touch and kind words (extra physical touch that you already provide).
If your child’s behaviors persist after a few weeks, consider seeking professional help. There are a number of resources in place that can be extremely useful for children and their families.

The Kentucky Psychological Association

Anxiety and Depression Association of American
Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies
Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress

Contributed by L. Kevin Chapman, Ph.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Louisville, and Director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities. He can be contacted at or 502.852.3017.

Photo: Fox News


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