Sunday, December 16, 2012

Helping your child weather the storm of tragedy

Imagine there is a sudden rainstorm.  You are walking with your child, sharing an umbrella from the wind and pelting rain.  You shelter your child from the worst of the storm, as best you can, and leave a portion of yourself exposed to the elements.  You have to do the navigating, it is your job.  This is the perspective I suggest to parents in the midst of tragedy.  The recent shooting in Newtown, Connecticut forces us to into action as parents.  I hope this blog entry will help you weather this storm with your young child.

The Storm:  When you prepared your child for school Friday morning, you were unprepared for the terrible news of another school shooting- this time in an elementary school.  Most people find the suffering of children especially hard to manage.   It is a vulnerability of every parent.  Be selective about the amount of news you absorb.  No matter how much information we get about a tragedy it will never make sense.  Your child needs your reassurance.  If you are saturated by the trauma you will not be able to weather the storm.  Some suggestion for managing your own stress:
  • Take care of yourself.  Remember to eat, keep your routine, and stay connected with a support system that is comforting to you.
  •  Take breaks from the news and avoid overwhelming yourself with pessimistic or alarmist thinking.  Get perspective that this is a rare occurrence.
  • Accept and acknowledge your feelings so you can express them appropriately to your child.
The Umbrella:  In the midst of tragedy you hold the umbrella. Remember that the media is not designed to present developmentally appropriate information for children. Once you have managed yourself you are ready to comfort your child. Listen carefully to what your child has heard.  Correct any distortions that may elevate their fears- rumors are common during the unfolding of a disaster. Be open to your child's worries and questions responding with sensitivity to your child's age and prior experience with death or trauma.  Be truthful without being terrifying. Redirect your child if he/she is pressing for gruesome details.  Most children will show some signs of anxiety which may include:
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Impaired concentration.
  • Tearfulness, reluctance about returning to school.
Providing Shelter:  Recovery from trauma requires restoring balance and safety for children. If you or your child have concerns about the security at school or in your neighborhood, this is an appropriate time to develop a proposal for change.  Empower your family to help make a difference in your own community if  you see need for improvement in safety.  Partner with others to "do good" to counterbalance the awareness that something bad has happened.  It is important to return to normal routine as soon as possible:
  • There will be a "first day back" for all students.  Provide accommodations if needed but make the first day Monday.  Examples could be allowing extra time in the morning to be supportive or driving your child instead of using the bus or walking into the building for a quick "you will be fine" hug.
  • Do not pick up your child early on their first day or text to check on them.  This is disruptive and suggests that you are afraid.
  • Consider a service project to do in honor of the families effected by the shooting or help your child send a card to the school if he/she expresses an interest.
Be courageous in your comfort.  Remind yourself and your child that there are more good people in the world than bad. Children can bounce back from tragedy with the help of a reassuring adult.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,‘ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.” ~ Fred Rogers

Resources: American Psychological Association Help Center: Helping your child manage distress in the aftermath of a shootingManaging your distress in the aftermath of a shooting. Listen, Protect, Connect- Model & Teach: The steps of psychological first aid for your students after a disaster, school crisis, or emergency.



  1. Thanks for sharing your wisdom. As I continued to read news stories online late last night, my mind drifted back to this blog--especially the part about taking a break from the news and remembering that there are more good people in the world than bad.

  2. Thank you for this, Lisa! I linked at my blog.