Helping children cope with tragedy
Parents everywhere held their children a little closer yesterday. The massacre of innocent children in Connecticut shook us all to our very core. Despite our best efforts to shield our children from this horrific news, most will discover it anyway. Your child might feel sad or afraid. After all, if it can happen in one school, it can happen in any school. Young children may experience nightmares, mood swings,and even fear of attending school.
How can parents help?
What is the best way to reassure your children?
How can you help them process their emotions while still reeling from your own?
Kids take their cues from adults. They learn how to respond by watching us. If we sit in front of the TV or computer engrossed in news reports, our children will watch, too. If we cry, scream, or lash out in anger our children will demonstrate these behaviors. Kids can pick up on our anxieties, fears, and phobias. If we are afraid to let them out of our sight, they will be afraid to leave our side.
Children lack the capacity to identify and process emotions effectively. They do not have the verbal skills to “talk it out” or the reasoning capabilities to understand as an adult. Plus, they are keenly aware of their vulnerability. Kids are small and defenseless against adults and they know it. Yet children are resilient. Most can bounce back from tragedy and thrive. Despite their size and lack of mental and emotional maturity, kids do have one amazing coping skill that most adults do not.
Through their play they unknowingly process emotions too complex and powerful to speak aloud. Adults can use this skill to help children in times of tragedy. Here are some suggestions you can use to help your children.
- Act out “a day at school” using miniatures, dolls, action figures, Barbies, etc. Let your child take the lead and just see where it goes. Make objective statements and ask questions.
- Have your child draw a picture of a “bad guy”. Tape it to the wall and encourage them to express their thoughts and feelings toward the image.
- Does your child have intense feelings of anger? Give them a bucket of ice cubes to throw on a hard surface outside. Let them cry or scream as they break the ice.
- Is your child feeling vulnerable? Create a “safety map” to demonstrate the many adults who work to keep your child safe (parents, teachers, ministers, coaches, police officers, etc.). Tell them stories of heroic adults who have protected children.
- Children have amazing capacity for empathy. If your child expresses a desire to “help” then you can use art supplies to create sympathy cards to send to the victims.
If, in spite of your best efforts, your child is displaying any of the warning signs listed below, it’s time to get him or her some professional help.
- Recurrent nightmares
- Difficulty sleeping
- Excessive fears of being alone, going to school, etc.
- Poor appetite
- Frequent mood swings
- Increase in aggressive behaviors
- Poor school performance
- Regression (bed wetting, nail-biting, “baby talk”, etc.)
Don’t wait to get help. The longer you wait, the worse it can get. A few sessions of play therapy with a therapist who specializes in treating children can help your child get back on track.