Helping Children to Cope With a Traumatic Event

By Tammy Dorff, Psy.D.

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings, we are all struggling to understand what happened and why, as it all seems so horrible, senseless and sad.  We are trying to cope with all of our feelings, such as shock, anger, sadness, grief, disbelief, fear, anxiety, and we may have some heightened concerns for our own and our loved ones’ safety.  Our children are also struggling with this and may wonder whether such a violent act could befall them and their friends and family too.  People with a prior history of trauma or loss, anxiety or other issues might be particularly vulnerable at these times.

Here are some guidelines that might help you and your children to cope with this tragic event:

1.  LIMIT EXPOSURE:  Limit how much you and your children are exposed to news of the event.  It is important to know what happened, but watching it over and over again on TV or seeing dramatic pictures in the newspaper or online can intensify feelings of anxiety, danger and vulnerability.  Younger children who see the event repeatedly on TV might understand this to mean that this tragedy keeps happening over and over again, which will make them even more scared than they were already.

2.  INFORMATION:  Find out what happened and give your children accurate information about the traumatic event.  Use your child’s age and developmental level to guide you in how much you tell them.  Answer their questions honestly.  Avoid giving them any graphic or gory descriptons of the event.

3. LISTEN:  Listen empathically to your children’s reactions, thoughts, fears and other feelings and take them seriously.  Even though you cannot necessarily fix their problems or make the tragedy go away, listening will help your children to feel less alone and will reassure them that you care about how they are doing post-tragedy.

4.  REASSURANCE:  Find out what concerns your child has regarding the event and address them.  Offer your children reassurance, hugs, love and support.  Let them know that these types of tragedies are rare.  Explain that most adults do not want to hurt children–they want to protect them–and that this was a very unusual circumstance which will hopefully not happen again anytime soon.  Tell them that police and parents came right away once they knew what was happening and helped as much as they could.  Remind your children that there are many people in their own lives who will do all that they can to protect them too.  Help them to feel as safe as possible, given the circumstances.

If your child has nightmares regarding the event, it might be helpful to allow them to sleep in your room for a night or two till they feel safer again.

If your child becomes afraid to go school because of the tragedy, remind him/her that there are lots of wonderful people at school who will be there to take care of them and protect them.  Do everything you can to help them to go to school and remain there throughout the day.  You might also be able to arrange for your child to call you at lunchtime from school as a way for your child to feel reassured that all is OK.

5.  KEEP YOUR ROUTINE:  It is important to maintain your usual routine–especially for children but for adults too–as routines can provide us all with a sense of security and continuity.  Going to work/school, after-school activities, sports, routine social or religious events can help to remind us that life goes on, and can  mitigate the sense that our world is “out of control”.

6.  FAMILY AND FRIENDS:  Spend some extra time relaxing, playing and having fun with family and friends.  Connecting with friends, family, and our greater community allows us to experience the safety net surrounding us.  It also serves as a reminder that life goes on and that it is important for us to make the most of it.

7.  CONTRIBUTE:  Often people find it helpful to contribute in some way towards making the world better following a tragedy.  This might involve doing something to directly help those who experienced the tragedy, but it can also be more basic.  Ideas include sending food or cards to the community in need, volunteering at a food bank or homeless shelter, donating money to a cause that has special meaning to you, helping to build a home through Habitat for Humanity, or joining in other local projects through community organizations, churches, synagogues or schools.  Such volunteer work or other contributions can help you to feel less helpless and can reaffirm that there are still many good people in this world, including you!

8.  SEEK PROFESSIONAL ASSISTANCE, IF NEEDED:  It is often helpful to speak with a therapist or school guidance counselor following a tragedy in order to process feelings and reactions, especially if they are connected to past events in your life.  Many people experience some difficulties following tragedies, but if these symptoms do not go away or get worse, this is an indication that professional assistance might be needed.

Such symptoms include:

  •  nightmares
  • changes in sleep or appetite
  • heightened anxiety, fear or clingyness
  • somatic complaints (stomach aches, headaches)
  • declining school or work performance
  • difficulty concentrating
  • school refusal
  • flashbacks
  • inability to stop thinking about the event
  • worrying excessively about something bad happening to you or your loved ones
  • increased depession, anger or irritability
  • in young children, play depicting the event which seems excessive or which results in your child’s seeming more anxious or upset

If you are your family members are experiencing these symptoms, feel free to contact us at 732-873-5570 to talk with us or to schedule an appointment.  We are here to help!