Talking to Your Kids about Violence and Disaster

Tragedy and disaster strikes when we least expect it. The recent Isla Vista attack, the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and the unfortunate events of Hurricane Sandy are prime examples of how trauma and disaster can affect children and families. Parents should encourage their children to express their feelings and limit their media exposure to the tragedy.

Below are several things to keep in mind about how best to help your children cope offered by experts at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. This column was originally written in July, 2012 in response to the Colorado shooting and was updated Dec. 16, 2012, incorporating advice related to the Connecticut school shooting tragedy.

A Traumatic Event for EVERYONE

Marcy: “Seeing a school, with kids like themselves, going through something terrifying and horrible, will make this more real for children, and can result in vicarious traumatization, as happened with the 9/11 events.” Hudson: “This is a traumatic event for everyone–a tragic occurrence around a summer blockbuster movie.” Rogers: “While it is normal for people to be affected by an event like this, most children and adults cope well with their feelings and may not be permanently impacted. However, there are measures parents should take to lessen the effect on their children.”

Control the Messenger

Hudson: “If your young child is a preschooler or younger and hearing the news again and again, he may not realize this is a singular event. He may think the event is repeating. It’s important to emphasize that the event is over.” Rogers: “Many families leave their TVs and radios on all day. The exposure can be confusing, so turn off the television.” Hudson: “You also don’t want your older child being immersed in it. To the extent possible, monitor their exposure. If it’s on TV, participate with them and reassure them that they are safe here.” Gorry: “Not every child needs to know what happened today. If your child hasn’t heard about the tragedy in Colorado, we don’t suggest starting the conversation. But you never know when your child might hear about it from another child or family. With each year that goes by, news gets out faster and it is important to understand what has happened and what your child may be feeling and how crucial your role is in helping your child express what they think or feel about what they saw today.” Marcy: “Discussions of this event need to be tailored to be developmentally appropriate. Small children, if exposed to media coverage, are unlikely to distinguish this from a fictional event, and need not be told otherwise. School aged and adolescent children have the capacity to personalize and generalize such an event and are more likely to have related and realistic fears. Use this as an opportunity and excuse to spend close, quality time with your children, away from the television and media.”

Don’t Underestimate the Impact

Marcy: “Parents should not give too much information. If a child becomes aware of the event, parents should first listen, find out what the child knows, what the child’s thoughts and reactions are, and then respond to them at that level.” Rogers: “This event involves children and teens as victims and it happened at a movie about a super hero, and many children identify with the concept of the super hero and the villain. Parents should listen to their children and not discourage them from expressing their feelings.” Hudson: “With older kids, ask them what their friends are saying before asking them what they’re feeling. They may be too sensitive to express their own feelings.” Gorry: “If your child has heard about the tragedy, it is important for you not to ignore it or pretend that they haven’t heard about it. Encourage your child to ask questions so that you can fill in important details. You don’t need to provide them with every single detail but, for children, the factual questions may be what they ask about first. Once they have asked about the details, then they will be more likely to be ready to talk about their feelings.”

Put it in Perspective

Rogers: “There are bad people in the world, but these types of things don’t happen very often. We’re safe here and there are many adults who are working hard to make sure you are safe. We don’t have a lot of answers right now as to the ‘why.’ It’s hard to explain or understand what led to this.” Marcy: “Consider the main concern that all children – people – have in the wake of such a horrible event: ‘could this happen to us?’ Approach this question in a way that helps foster a sense of safety and security, and increases the child’s ability to rationalize why this will not happen to them, even if somewhat false.”

Watch Children with Previous Exposure to Trauma

Rogers: “A child who has experienced previous trauma could be more impacted by this. They could cope by using play they had long since outgrown or suddenly lose skills. They could re-experience their past trauma or this trauma by playing it over again in their minds. They can talk a lot about it or experience nightmares, avoidance, numbing feelings or a reduced range of emotions. It’s not unlike a soldier who has been traumatized by war.” Marcy: “Look for signs of a trauma reaction in children – behavioral regressions, fear of separating from parents, toileting accidents, nightmares, withdrawal, change in eating habits, sudden somatic complaints, persevering on talking about the event, hyperactivity/hyperarousal, decreased attention/concentration, school avoidance, disruptive behaviors.”

Mourn the Loss

Hudson: “Maybe out of respect, you don’t go see the movie this week to honor those whose lives were lost or who were wounded. Encourage them to develop a sensitivity to the tragedy.” Gorry: “What we see over and over again at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles is that, as strong as parents’ desire to protect their children might be, a child’s desire to protect their parents could be even stronger. Even if children don’t hear about this tragedy, but see your negative reactions, they may react to that. Sometimes kids won’t tell you something if they think that telling you will make you cry, unless you share with them that it’s OK for them to see you cry. It’s much better for the entire family to cry with each other than to hold it in. Parents should feel comfortable saying, ‘That makes me really sad,’ and sharing their feelings with their child.”

Every Feeling is OK

Gorry: “After hearing about a tragedy like this, some kids may be sad for all the people who got hurt. Other kids might respond by saying that they are really happy because they saw someone in the news who looked like they were alive and doing fine. Or, your child might say that they are happy because they were not hurt or no one in their family was hurt. Just remember that, no matter what feeling your child has, that every feeling is appropriate at the time it is being felt. The best thing you can do as a parent is to acknowledge that your child’s feelings are OK.”

Get Help

Rogers: “If your child seems more tightly wound – having difficulty sleeping and concentrating or experiencing extreme emotions for a couple of weeks, talk to your pediatrician, or a counselor. Seek extra support. There is effective therapy for trauma and it is helpful.”

This post was updated on May 27, 2014 at 6:50 a.m. to incorporate the Isla Vista attack.