How To Help Your Child Cope With Tragic Events

August 30th, 2017

helping kids after tragic events

Recently a 7-year-old Australian boy was killed in a terrorist attack in Spain. It attracted enormous media attention and had a significant impact on his school community. Events like this are rare thankfully, but they are tragic and can be very confusing and anxiety provoking for children. Particularly if someone from their school is involved. In this blog, I will offer some tips on how parents can help their children to process and make sense of tragedies like this, and negotiate grief in general.

Consider Your Child’s Developmental Stage

Your response will depend on your child’s age and level of maturity. Most children under the age of five aren’t yet able to understand that death is final. Between the ages of six to nine they are more able to recognise the finality, but may not be able to fully understand that death happens to everyone. Some may see death as something that happens to older people or to people they don’t know. Generally, children have a more comprehensive understanding of death from the age of nine and are usually more able to cope with information about it. Remember that every child progresses differently and that a child’s age should only be used as a guide.

Let Your Children Ask Questions

After hearing about events such as the attacks in Spain, some children may start having feelings about the world being unsafe. There are a number of ways that you can help your child to rebuild their trust and feelings of safety. Let them know that it’s okay to ask questions and reassure them that you will do your best to answer them. Just like adults, children need time to process their experiences, before they can verbalise their feelings. Their questions may come a long time afterwards; reassure them that this is okay.

While honesty and openness are important, avoid going in to all the gory details of the event; this is likely to be traumatising and more than they can handle. It is sufficient to say that there has been an accident and that their friend, family member, or other loved one has passed away.

Routine Is Important

Help your child to maintain their daily routine as much as possible. Routine helps to reinforce familiarity and predictability; the more stable a child’s daily life is, the easier they will find it to adjust to tragic events and losses. Help them to reduce their own stress levels by ensuring that they have time out for themselves, time for fun and playtime activities, as well as some time for homework and chores.

As a family, it helps to talk about plans for the future, such as holidays; children find this reassuring. And continue to do your normal outings to public places and events, as avoidance can unintentionally reinforce fears about safety.

Everyone Expresses Grief In Different Ways

Be willing to allow your child to express their grief in their own unique way. Some children will cry, others won’t, remember there is no right or wrong way to grieve. However, it is important that you intervene if your child expresses their feelings in less helpful ways, such as through violence and aggression.

You may also find yourself struggling to come to terms with such events, after all parents have feelings too! If so, it’s okay for your children to see that tragic events also affect adults. This allows your child to see that it is okay and normal to grieve and experience distressing emotions in response to loss. However, it is also important that parents do not rely on their children for emotional support, as it’s not helpful or appropriate for a child to feel responsible for supporting grieving parents.

Give Your Child Realistic Reassurances

Tragic events like this can also lead some children to worry about their own death. This is normal of course, and it’s helpful to offer your child some realistic reassurance. You could tell them that no one knows when they will die and that you hope that they will be around for a long time. They may also need reassuring that their parents aren’t about to die. Again, be realistic with your reassurance. Letting them know that as parents you also hope to be around for a long time is often useful.

I hope that you find these tips helpful. It is worth noting that some children may benefit from talking with a psychologist or counsellor to help them to process their grief and confusing emotions.

I hope you find my blogs helpful and I appreciate the time that you take to read them. If any of the content has brought up any concerns about your mental health, please seek professional help right away.

Joclyn Stanley

Registered psychologist Joclyn Stanley brings expertise in relationship-building and life coaching to provide genuine care and help clients identify self-limiting patterns, improve communication, nurture connections, and reach their full potential.

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