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How to help your children cope with unexpected tragedy

By Brenda Bursch


Children look to their parents to help them understand the inexplicable. They look to their parents to assuage worries and fears. They depend on their parents to protect them. What can parents do to help their children cope with mass tragedy, such as occurred this week with the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut?

The first thing that parents can do is to calm themselves. Remember that your children will react to your fear and distress. It will be reassuring to them to see that you are calm and not afraid to discuss the event with them.

Next, parents can consider limiting their children’s exposure to media coverage and to adult discussions of the shooting. Young children may have particular difficulty understanding what they see on news stories and what they overhear from adult discussions. They may also have difficulty assessing their own level of safety.

It can be helpful for parents to check in with their children in order to learn about their thoughts and emotional reactions to the shooting. After carefully listening to their children, parents can then determine if it is necessary to correct distressing misunderstandings, answer questions, validate feelings of anger or sadness, and remind their children about how their family members and others, including police officers, help to keep them safe.

Most children will not be traumatized by their media exposure to the shooting, but they may have questions or concerns. Some children will be fearful about returning to school or have other signs of distress, but will adjust with the support and reassurances provided by parents and others. Children who are especially sensitive, those who have a tendency to worry, those with little emotional support, and those who have been previously traumatized, may be more vulnerable.

Trauma symptoms among children vary, but include talking about the event, distress when reminded of the trauma, nightmares, new separation anxiety or clinginess, new fears, sleep disturbance, physical symptoms (such as stomachaches), and more irritability or tantrums. Children may regress, that is, soothe or express themselves in ways they did when they were younger. For example, they might want to sleep with parents or they may wet the bed. Parents might notice an increase in behavioral problems or a decrease in school functioning. If these symptoms don’t improve in the coming weeks, such children may benefit from professional assistance.

Children are reassured by calm and supportive adults, by their normal routines, and by age-appropriate information when they have questions or misconceptions. For those children with ongoing signs of trauma, effective treatments are available. For additional information, parents can access information from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network website.

Brenda Bursch, PhD is a pediatric psychologist and Professor of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Science, and Pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. She is co-author of “How Many More Questions?” : Techniques for Clinical Interviews of Young Medically Ill Children.

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