When scary events happen in a child's home, school, or community, their sense of security and stability is shattered. Children look to their parents and other trusted adults for safety and reassurance when accidents, violent crimes, natural disasters, or other traumatic events occur.
Violent events, particularly shootings, can leave a child helpless, vulnerable, or traumatized. Whether the event occurs in their community, state, nationally, or globally, the child may experience intense and confusing emotions.
Especially during frightening times, it’s essential to create a safe space for your child, one where they feel heard and understood. While the emotional impact of a tragic event depends on the child’s personality, past experiences, social and economic circumstances, and the availability of local resources, all children need support processing scary events.
These tips from our mental health team can help you support your child or teen as they cope with tragedy.
Limit media exposure
We can’t control the news itself, but we can try to control how often we tune in. Try to limit your child’s exposure to frightening media, and if you can, avoid letting your child experience the news without you or another trusted adult. We know this might be unrealistic today, especially with the widespread use of TikTok, Twitch, Instagram, and other social media platforms. If your child has already heard about the event, ask them, “what did you hear, and how are you feeling?”
Check in often, be honest, and answer questions
Your child and their friends may have been talking about the event, or your child may have seen news of the event on social media. Your child might be ruminating, thinking about the tragedy. Try to encourage your child to talk about what they’re feeling. Determining a “check-in” time, like dinner or bedtime, can be helpful. Allow them to ask questions, and try your best to answer honestly. Checking in with your child often allows you to debunk myths or misconceptions. Talk with your child about the facts.
Encourage healthy processing through art, play, and movement
Art, creative play, and exercise are fantastic ways for children of all ages to process their feelings and cope with their emotions. For young children, especially those who have difficulty expressing themselves through words, art, and music, can foster expression. Play, art, and movement help children make sense of the world around them in their own way.
Remind your child of the helpers
Talk to your child about those in our communities who keep us safe. Firefighters, doctors, nurses, teachers, religious leaders, police, etc. As Fred Rogers famously said, “when something scary is happening, look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Focusing on the helpers helps your child retain their sense of community and safety.
In addition to looking for helpers, consider being the helpers. Taking positive action can help increase your child’s sense of agency. Doing something to help others can be very therapeutic for children and help them feel like they are making a meaningful difference.
Take care of yourself
When tragedy strikes, it can be challenging to handle your own emotions, let alone support your child. If you’re emotional, your child might pick up on that and become emotional too. If you’re able, try to model calm. Remember that children pick up on small cues, and are always listening, so be mindful of how you talk about the event with other adults if your child is present.
Reach out for support
If your child has difficulty with everyday activities or their relationships with family and peers are affected, consider talking to a professional. A mental health professional can help your child process their feelings and develop coping tools.
While you can’t fully protect your children from scary news, you can help them process news healthily. You can provide reassurance and a place for honest, supportive conversation,