Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Experts Offer Parental Tips on How to Talk to Your Children after Tragedy and Disaster

Sun Apr 21, 2013 3:53pm EDT

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Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Experts Offer Parental Tips on How to Talk to Your Children after Tragedy and Disaster

Tragedy and disaster strike when we least expect it and two recent devastating events – the Boston Marathon bombing and the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas – are prime examples of how trauma can affect children and families. In the wake of these tragedies, Children's Hospital Los Angeles experts have put together a list of 10 parental tips on how to help children cope.

No matter what feeling your child has, every feeling is appropriate at the time it is being felt. (P ...

No matter what feeling your child has, every feeling is appropriate at the time it is being felt. (Photo: Business Wire)

This column was originally written in July, 2012 in response to the Colorado movie theater shooting and was updated Dec. 16, 2012, incorporating advice related to the Connecticut school shooting tragedy. It was updated again last week after the Boston Marathon bombing.

A Traumatic Event for EVERYONE

Marcy: “Seeing kids like themselves going through something terrifying and horrible, will make this more real for children, and can result in vicarious traumatization, as happened with the 9/11 events.” Rogers: “While it is normal for people to be affected by an event like this, most children and adults cope well with their feelings and may not be permanently impacted. However, there are measures parents should take to lessen the effect on their children.”

Control the Messenger

Rogers: “Many families leave their TVs and radios on all day. The exposure can be confusing, so turn off the television.” Marcy: “Discussions of this event need to be tailored to be developmentally appropriate. School aged and adolescent children have the capacity to personalize and generalize such an event and are more likely to have related and realistic fears. Use this as an opportunity and excuse to spend close, quality time with your children, away from the television and media.”

Limit What You Say, Especially to Young Children

Marcy: “Small children, if exposed to media coverage, are unlikely to distinguish this from a fictional event, and need not be told otherwise. In talking to their children about the events, they should provide only enough information necessary to address their children’s fears, and then focus on the multiple examples of human kindness, charity, and selflessness in contrast to the one hateful deed."

Don’t Underestimate the Impact

Marcy: “Parents should not give too much information. If a child becomes aware of the event, parents should first listen, find out what the child knows, what the child’s thoughts and reactions are, and then respond to them at that level.” Hudson: “With older kids, ask them what their friends are saying before asking them what they’re feeling. They may be too sensitive to express their own feelings.”

Stay Calm and Lead by Way of Example

Marcy: “It’s important for parents to model self-care, as well, maintain routine for themselves and their children, and try to focus on positive aspects in their lives. Families on lock down, such as Boston residents who have been told to stay indoors during the manhunt for the Boston marathon suspects, should take some direction from the movie Life Is Beautiful, where a father protects his son from the horrors of a concentration camp by using his imagination and turning the experience into game for his boy. The point is kids are taking cues from Parents and if they can reframe and make it a more “fun” experience (e.g., bake cookies or pretend they’re camping) the kids are much less likely to be traumatized.”

Put it in Perspective

Rogers: “There are bad people in the world, but these types of things don’t happen very often. We’re safe here and there are many adults who are working hard to make sure you are safe. We don’t have a lot of answers right now as to the ‘why.’ It’s hard to explain or understand what led to this.” Marcy: “Consider the main concern that all children – people – have in the wake of such a horrible event: ‘could this happen to us?’ Approach this question in a way that helps foster a sense of safety and security, and increases the child’s ability to rationalize why this will not happen to them, even if somewhat false.”

Watch Children with Previous Exposure to Trauma

Rogers: “A child who has experienced previous trauma could be more impacted by this. They could cope by using play they had long since outgrown or suddenly lose skills. They could re-experience their past trauma or this trauma by playing it over again in their minds. They can talk a lot about it or experience nightmares, avoidance, numbing feelings or a reduced range of emotions. It’s not unlike a soldier who has been traumatized by war.” Marcy: “Look for signs of a trauma reaction in children – behavioral regressions, fear of separating from parents, toileting accidents, nightmares, withdrawal, change in eating habits, sudden somatic complaints, persevering on talking about the event, hyperactivity/hyperarousal, decreased attention/concentration, school avoidance, disruptive behaviors.”

Mourn the Loss

Gorry: “What we see over and over again at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles is that, as strong as parents’ desire to protect their children might be, a child’s desire to protect their parents could be even stronger. Even if children don’t hear about this tragedy, but see your negative reactions, they may react to that. Sometimes kids won’t tell you something if they think that telling you will make you cry, unless you share with them that it’s OK for them to see you cry. It’s much better for the entire family to cry with each other than to hold it in. Parents should feel comfortable saying, ‘That makes me really sad,’ and sharing their feelings with their child.”

Every Feeling is OK

Gorry: “After hearing about a tragedy, some kids may be sad for all the people who got hurt. Other kids might respond by saying that they are really happy because on the news they saw someone who looked like they were alive and doing fine. Or, your child might say that they are happy because they were not hurt or no one in their family was hurt. Just remember that, no matter what feeling your child has, that every feeling is appropriate at the time it is being felt. The best thing you can do as a parent is to acknowledge that your child’s feelings are OK.”

Get Help

Rogers: “If your child seems more tightly wound – having difficulty sleeping and concentrating or experiencing extreme emotions for a couple of weeks, talk to your pediatrician, or a counselor. Seek extra support. There is effective therapy for trauma and it is helpful.”

Children’s Hospital Los Angeles
Lorenzo Benet, 323-361-4823
lbenet@chla.usc.edu