Child Psychologist Offers 5 Ways To Help Kids Process Tragedy
(You can find this interview here.)
Children may feel anxiety if they hear about the tragic shooting at a school in Connecticut. For advice about how to talk to kids and help them express their feelings, we turned to Bob Beilke, a pediatric and clinical child psychologist who has worked for 21 years at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital & Health Center in Tacoma, Wash.
How do I talk to my kids about something like this?
As a starting point, ask them a general question like, “Did you hear about something bad that happened today?”
If the child says no, there’s no reason that a young child needs to know about this.
Asking a general question as a starting point gives you an opportunity to ask, “What did you hear?” and provide some corrective information.
Kids in middle school and high school may know more about it than kids in elementary school.
Let’s say the child sees it on the news or someone talks about it. Depending on the age of the child, provide general information, though not specific information.
In simple terms:
· A bad person hurt some children.
· This happened far away on other side of the country. It is not anywhere close to where we live.
· Provide a lot of reassurance about the school they go to. “Your school is safe.”
· Tell them the principal makes sure that no one can get in to hurt anyone, and your teacher is trained how to deal with situations like this.
· Explain that this is why schools have a zero-tolerance policy about bringing any kind of weapons at school, even toys.
During a tragedy, adults often watch a lot of news coverage. Should they do that around their child?
We wouldn't want parents to inundate the child with a lot of media reports. We don’t want the child to have to hear the detailed information. It's bad enough to witness it or hear about it once, but it is traumatic to see and listen to it over and over again. Limit the amount of discussion about this particular incident.
Adults can contextualize it and may want more information, because information is helpful for the adult mind. But for a little child, too much information without an understanding of that information produces more anxiety, so we’d want to shield the child from a lot of that.
What if my child asks, “Why did this happen?”
In response to an older child, we might say that we don’t always know why people do things, other than the person was angry and felt that he wanted to punish other people for all the bad things that have happened in his own life.
For younger kids, we might explain they’re just a bad person who’s angry at other people. Then explain to the child that’s why we don’t allow weapons at school, and parents and teachers are careful about who visits the school, and that’s why we, as their Mom or Dad, make sure they’re safe.
What are some signs to watch for if my child is having anxiety about this?
Anxiety is one of those things that’s very internalized, so some kids may not look or behave differently, but they may still have worries.
Look for changes in appetite. Changes in routine. Things they normally would have enjoyed, they’re not doing. They might be more clingy with parents. Potentially nightmares. Tummy aches, headaches. Younger children may have regressive behavior, such as more crying, being irritable, or wetting the bed.
For the older child, parents should ask general questions that allow the child to express their concerns. Ask, “What do you think about that? How are you feeling?”
If they’re feeling scared, allow the child to supply that.
If child is having nightmares about this, or the child is obsessed about this and keeps talking about it, or looks very anxious, that’s the time to consider talking to the school counselor. If a parent is concerned, talk to the teacher or principal and share those concerns, because they are very aware of these things. The teacher can offer reassurance for the child.
How can I reassure my child?
A parent has to be balanced about it, and don’t traumatize the child by your own conversations. They’re going to look to the parent for their sense of security. Kids will take their cue from their parent, so if the parent is calm, confident and reassuring, then the child will be reassured.
But if a parent is anxious and frightening the child, the child isn’t going to be reassured at all.
That’s where one’s presentation in how they present themselves communicates much more loudly than their words.
Parents should keep their children in school and not take them out of school. The reality is this type of tragedy is a low frequency event. It doesn't happen often at all. The number of dead makes it a high-interest event but a child is far more at risk riding in a car than being in school.