Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Help Kids Talk About Their Feelings When Traumatic Events Happen

It’s been a month since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  It still reverberates for many of us.  No matter how much we want to keep the world safe for our children, tragedies like this will happen again.   None the less, we can help children voice their fears, offer them comfort, and help them develop skills to deal with frightening experiences. 


You can’t talk children out of feeling afraid or offer them reassurance too quickly.  They need time to express their feelings and know that you will respect them.  Hearing news like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School will feel scary to them. School is where much of their daily life takes place; when something frightening happens in a school their sense of security will be shaken.  Schools suddenly might not feel safe anymore.  Help them voice all the things they’re worried about.   Getting their feelings out will help lessen their power.   Reassurance can then follow, which will help them put their fears in perspective. After all, fear is our normal response to frightening and life threatening events.  There are times in our life when it makes sense to feel afraid and vulnerable.


Children will want to know if something like this could happen to them in their school.   Explain how unusual this situation is, and how unlikely it is that they would ever experience such an event.   Let them know what safety measures are already in place at their school, and that experts are working on making their school, and all schools, even safer.   Children might also wonder if they are safe at home.   Review any safety routines you already have in place and make sure children know how to call for help; have the phone numbers of reliable family and friends available.


When scary things happen we all feel more vulnerable. We seek comfort in being with people we love.   Children will also seek more contact.  Your presence will be reassuring.  Make more time to hang out and be around. Children might not know how to ask for this, but instead might be clingy, show regressed behavior or act out.


When there is wide coverage of a news story, especially centered on school violence, it might not be possible to know what children have learned. It’s good to check out what they’ve already heard before offering an explanation. You might first need to correct misinformation or distortions.  You can then retell a more accurate story.


It’s also a good idea to limit exposure.  Children are exposed to too much information that is beyond their ability to understand.  Exposure through small doses and lots of conversation make difficult things more manageable for children.  


When thinking about something scary, it can often be healing to imagine a more positive outcome.    You might ask what a child would wish might have happened.   Ask them to tell you a story about this or create a collaborative story with rich details and images.    Imagining a different outcome can be calming and can create a new image to replace the scary one.   It can also remind us that positive and cooperative behavior is more typical than violent and destructive behavior.

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