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Helping children cope with tragedy

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY -- We can all relate to feeling helpless when tragedy strikes. Children are even more profoundly affected by horrific events because they rely on adults to keep their world safe; and when bad things happen that even adults can't control, their sense of security is shaken.

Dr. Liz Hale shared some tips on how you can help your child cope with tragic events.

  1. Discuss the truth of the tragedy When something terrible has happened, explain the circumstances to your child in a way that they can understand. If your school-age children aren't asking questions about the recent tragedy, don't assume they haven't heard about it or don't have questions or concerns. Bring it up; ask them about what they've heard and how they feel. Watch television news with your children or research the facts on the Internet with them. It's common to want to protect your children from unpleasant feelings. In an attempt to protect them, however, too often we shelter children from expressing their feelings and fears, and we say, "don't worry; that didn't happen anywhere near here." However, children become even more fearful and apprehensive if they aren't given the opportunity to discuss their feelings about what happened. Without the facts, children imagine the worst that could happen to them, their family, friends, and even the entire world. Share your own sad thoughts and feelings, along with your hope for a community's recovery.
  2. Reassure that tragic events have low probability Horrific events are not the norm; they are rare and highly infrequent. Children easily identify with others so they may personalize negative events and believe they could easily happen to them. Reassure your child by reminding them that, "most of the people in our world are good and kind citizens. However, out of billions of good people, there can be a very bad, disturbed person capable of doing very bad things." Reassure your child that the awful events are very unlikely going to happen to them or members of their family. Remind your child of all the people who were not harmed in this city of one million people in Tucson, Ariz. Despite even the great loss of life that occurred on 9/11, many people were not harmed that day. Most airplanes returned safely to the ground; the vast majority of people in the Pentagon and World Trade Center escaped danger, and many other buildings, cities, and areas throughout the United States were not physically affected. A realistic outlook helps all of us remain alert to but not paralyzed by danger.
  3. Instill reliance on resiliency and faith Tragedies often raise the big questions of life. What happens to us after we die? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why are we here? Parents don't need to pretend to have all the answers; none of us do. However, if you practice a particular faith or religious practice, help your children cope with personal tragedy by teaching them how to apply and rely on their faith. Teach them how to self-soothe either through prayer or meditation. Children become more resilient and confident when they have healthy mental skill sets to sooth and comfort themselves.
  4. Revisit and welcome additional conversations Most conversations about important and tragic events need to be revisited. Share additional information that you gathered throughout the day. Express your hope in humanity. Read about the heroes that day who stepped into this massacre and said, "what can I do to help?" and they did everything from comforting the injured to physically putting pressure on a stranger's bleeding body to stop the loss of blood. I was personally touched by the mother of 9-year-old victim, Kristina Taylor Green who, on the day following the death of her daughter, wrote a letter of loving support to the neighbor who took Kristina to the political gathering, begging her to not blame herself. Find and share the stories of inspiration with your children.

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