Helping Kids Cope With Tragedy

The details of the Boston Marathon bombings are shaking families across the country. This violent high profile event will likely dominate news headlines for weeks. Though few of us were at the finish line, the event may cause children to fear that an event like this could happen to them. All of us, including our children, are dealing with sadness, anger and other strong emotions. As we try to return to normal, our emotional reactions will continue to evolve.

This is a good time to remind ourselves of ways that we can help our kids manage their stress and emotions as they process tragedy. Here are a few tips for different age groups that can help you move forward:

Early Childhood

Even though very young babies and toddlers may not know what is going on, they may pick up a parent’s worry and anxiety with their “sixth sense.”

  • Try to stay calm around babies and toddlers.
  • Maintain normal routines as much as possible. Routines are reassuring for babies.
  • Shield babies and toddlers from media coverage as much as possible.
  • Look for non-verbal signs that your preschooler may be anxious. This might include being scared to go outside or to daycare, extra weepy, clingy, or irritable. Provide extra reassurance and time together.
  • Take the lead from your toddler. Don't bring it up yourself unless they show signs of distress or ask questions.

Preschoolers

Preschoolers will be more tuned in to what is happening. They may have questions about bombs, violence, and death.

  • Safety is a primary concern for this age group. Reassure them that adults are in charge and will keep them safe.
  • Preschoolers are also concerned about the safety of parents, relatives, and friends. Reassure them. Let them know your whereabouts and keep your commitments to them.
  • Preschoolers are not always able to distinguish fantasy and reality. Limit media exposure.
  • Look for non-verbal signs that your preschooler may be anxious. This might include being scared to go to preschool, extra weepy, clingy, or irritable.
  • Bedtimes are very important. Stories, books and tuck-ins are crucial.
  • Try to maintain your children’s normal routines.
  • Give them lots of hugs and physical reassurance.
  • Take the lead from your preschooler. Don't bring it up yourself unless they show signs of distress or ask questions.

Elementary School

School age children will be more aware of what is going on. They have probably had discussions at school and with friends.

  • Talk to your elementary age children. Explain what happened while reassuring them that you and your child's teachers will do everything to keep them safe.
  • Children this age are also concerned about their own safety, as well as that of family and friends. Try to spend extra time together. This will provide extra reassurance.
  • Ask them if they have any questions. If they do, tell them what you know without exaggerating or overreacting.
  • Don’t be surprised if they are more irritable and touchy. Be extra patient.
  • Limit TV coverage.
  • Try to continue normal routines, especially at bedtime.
  • If fear persists, point out all the things adults are doing to help. Children like to be helpful and feel like they can do something. Children can write a letter or send a package to those suffering.

Middle School

Children this age will be very aware of what is going on. They have probably seen many of the tragic images on TV and in magazines. They may have already discussed the event at school or with friends.

  • Talk to your middle school children and answer any questions. This will help you determine how much they know and may help you correct any misinformation they might have.
  • Acknowledge any feelings of fear, horror, and anger.
  • Provide comfort and reassurance.
  • Children this age will be more interested in what might happen in the future. Don’t burden them with fears that you might have and provide reassurance that they are safe.
  • Some children may act out scary feelings through misbehavior. Others may become more withdrawn. Pay attention to these cues and ask them to tell you about their feelings.
  • Some kids might want to take action in some way and be helpful. Get your kids connected to positive responses in their school or community.
  • Talk to your kids about what they see on TV or read online.

High School

High school students have probably had conversations with their peers and teachers. They might have fears about what this will mean for own safety and or have questions about the policy issues involved including pubic safety and mental health.

  • Questions about safety are all legitimate issues for this age group. It is important to discuss these topics with them.
  • Acknowledge any fear, sadness, and anger they have.
  • Some teens may want to block out the whole thing. It may appear that they do not care. This often masks real fears and feelings of being overwhelmed.
  • Some teens may make jokes. Humor can be a way to help them cope, but discourage them from humor that disregards the importance of taking the tragedy seriously.
  • Talk to your kids about what they see on TV or read online.
  • Some teens may be very interested in discussing the policy issues involved. Be willing to engage them in serious discussions about public safety, media response and stereotyping, and mental health.
  • Be careful to avoid placing blame on a whole group of people or targeting particular groups.