Talking to Kids About Tragedies

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By News Team on May 26, 2022

Tragedies such as the recent horrific murders in a Texas school, a New York grocery store, a church in southern California and an Oklahoma hospital are profoundly traumatic for those directly affected.

teenager leaning against fence and looking down as if depressed or lonely
While young children may become more clingy after witnessing or experiencing trauma, older children and teens may isolate themselves from friends and family or try to cope by using drugs or alcohol.

Robert L. Trestman, Ph.D., M.D., chair of Carilion Clinic Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine, says families that are far away from the violence can be affected, too 
 
“These tragedies can have serious impact on others of us who did not know the victims, but identify with them or the potential for such events to occur much closer to home,” he said.
 
Parents and caregivers may not know how to support their frightened children or even handle their own reactions to such distressing news. Questions Dr. Trestman’s team has heard include:

  • “How do I reassure my children?”
  • “My kids are afraid to go to school. What do I tell them?”
  • “My PTSD symptoms just got triggered. How can I deal with my fears?”
  • “I don’t feel safe anywhere anymore.”

The answers to those questions are complex.

Reactions to Traumatic Events

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the reactions people have to disasters can be confusing and inconsistent. For example, people may feel anything from numbness to depression and anger, they may have no appetite or want to eat all the time, and they may experience either a complete lack of energy or hyperactivity. In addition, watch for:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Confusion and trouble concentrating
  • Social isolation and reduced or restricted activities
  • Believing that others don’t feel the same about the event
  • Headaches, stomach aches or other body pains
  • Misusing alcohol, tobacco, drugs or prescription medications to cope

Children, especially very young ones, may be more clingy or have more tantrums than usual and they may revert to bedwetting or thumb-sucking.

School-aged children may start getting into fights or isolating from their friends altogether, and adolescents and teens may resort to alcohol and drugs to cope.

How You Can Help

Children learn how to behave by watching the adults in their lives—that includes both healthy and less healthy coping skills. So the best way parents and caregivers can support their children is by “putting their oxygen mask on first."

 
To take care of yourself, the APA recommends:

  • Taking care of your day-to-day needs: eating, hydrating, exercising and sleeping
  • Avoiding alcohol, tobacco and other drugs to cope or escape
  • Using breathing exercises, meditation, calming self-talk or soothing music to relax
  • Engaging in hobbies, social activities and work
  • Skipping television and social media in favor of credible sources of information
  • Helping in practical ways, such as sharing information about available resources; helping others helps ourselves as well
  • Accepting your complex, quickly changing feelings

To help the children and teens in your life, the most important thing you can do is to create a supportive environment where they can feel safe voicing their fears and asking difficult questions. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers tips on how to do that in this video:

If several weeks pass and you are still on high alert with significant distress, especially if it is interfering with your work or home life, reach out to your primary care physician for help or a referral to a mental health expert.

“These are extraordinary times,” said Dr. Trestman. “While we can’t fix everything, we are here to care for those in need.”
 
Part of that care involves providing accurate, reliable information and guidance. Dr. Trestman and his team recommend the following websites for more information about caring for your children—and yourself.

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CarilionClinic.org/safe | CarilionClinic.org/coronavirus | CarilionClinic.org/covid-19-vaccine
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