Reassurance, Coping Skills, Action, and Resilience: How to Handle Tragedy with Kids

mother comforting son

All children have worries. But worries can intensify when they hear alarming radio and television broadcasts, and adults talking or—worse—whispering about random shootings, floods, evacuations, and other frightening events. Children can find it difficult to put their own apprehension into words, get past a sense of isolation, or calm the feeling that the world is out of control—especially if adults exclude them from conversations about what matters.

Parents shouldn’t dismiss or underplay their child’s desire to learn about what’s happening—no matter how troubling things may be. It’s far better to listen carefully, and offer support as he seeks to discover more about a situation, its possible causes, and what can be done about it. Adults who provide a safe and dependable environment, active listening, and open communication, are on track to supporting their child’s emotional well-being during troubling times. At the same time, they’ll be helping him develop the resilience he’ll need to deal with troubles that lie ahead. Regardless of a child’s age, temperament, ability, situation, or concerns, adults can soothe worries that cause deeper distress—but only if they’re paying attention to the child’s concerns.

Parents have to wrestle with their own anxieties and emotional responses to adversity before they can address their child’s. This means developing effective coping strategies for themselves. It also helps to communicate regularly with others in children’s lives, such as grandparents and teachers, both in school and in extracurricular areas. If a child perceives that the adults in her life are upset, distracted, condescending, or harried—that is, not receptive to her concerns—it inhibits her ability to develop coping skills.

Here are some practical suggestions for helping kids manage their concerns in times of trouble. It applies to children of all ages, from toddlerhood through adolescence. The list is divided into three sections: the first is about being a good model of coping, especially during challenging times; the second provides strategies for offering reassurance; and the third is about supporting your child in taking action. The child who observes his parents coping well, who feels safe, and who learns how to deal with his fears or address the problems of others is much better able to move on once the worst is over. He’s also acquiring skills that will make him more resilient the next time adversity strikes.

Model Effective Coping Skills

  1. Take stock of your own feelings before attempting to address your child’s concerns.
  2. Try to model good problem-solving skills, so your child can see what that looks like in action.
  3. Strengthen your social support networks. Talk to friends, family, and others about issues that might be unsettling.
  4. Security and predictability matter more than usual in times of trouble. Be as available to your child as you can be, and make sure you’re there when you say you will be. Try to stick to normal daily routines if you can.
  5. When possible, choose a quiet, comfortable space for open dialogue, when there’s ample time for discussion, and you’re feeling relatively relaxed. This is always a good idea, but it’s especially important at high-stress times.
  6. Be patient with yourself, especially in challenging circumstances. Be as calm and responsive as you can be, giving yourself permission (as always) not to do everything perfectly.

Reassure:

  1. Listen, really listen, to your child’s questions. Pay attention to the words, hear what she’s saying, and also what she’s not saying (but might want to know).
  2. Ask your child what he wants to learn more about, and what other concerns he might have.
  3. Be particularly attentive if your child has experienced other traumatic events, has a history of emotional problems, lacks friends with whom to share ideas, or shows signs of undue stress. (This includes sleeplessness, changes in eating habits, mood swings, academic decline, changes in activity level, substance abuse, or behavior that’s markedly out of step in relation to age peers.)
  4. Deal with issues separately, one by one.
  5. Be honest, providing only as much detail as the child is able to handle. Children’s cognitive levels differ with age, development, and personal experience, as do their abilities to process emotionally loaded information.
  6. Discuss the ways that relationship-building can help in overcoming hardship.
  7. Whether or not your child feels like talking, a warm hug or a few quiet moments together can be very comforting.
  8. Help your child steer clear of excessive exposure to conflict, violence, or human suffering in the media. Acknowledge that there are problems, but explain that it doesn’t help to focus on them too much.
  9. Describe how troubling circumstances are productively addressed; for example, relief efforts, plans for rebuilding, the roles of first responders.
  10. Help your child realize and accept her limitations, including recognizing that despite her best intentions, she’s too young to fix major or global problems.
  11. In some circumstances, parents can’t do it alone. If your child is deeply troubled and cannot be calmed, consider consulting a professional with expertise in children’s emotional well-being.

Support Your Child in Taking Action:

  1. Encourage your child to express his ideas and feelings through the arts. Drawing, music, and journal writing, and other form of expression can be good emotional outlets, and also serve as springboards for discussion if your child chooses to share them with you.
  2. Reassure your child that if she has fun it doesn’t mean she’s insensitive to the misfortune of others. Encourage her to play, to continue to be active, and to maintain balance in her life.
  3. Find stories (fact or fiction) about people who’ve been affected by unsettling events (such as earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, street violence, etc.). Help your child appreciate and understand how it’s possible to be persistent or brave, or find ways to confront challenge, suffering, or loss. Focus on the strengths, resilience, and courage conveyed.
  4. Help your child fortify family ties and friendships. During times of trouble, a strong social support system can make a big difference.
  5. If your child wants to contribute to relief efforts, you can help him look for volunteer opportunities at levels he can manage. Information is available from associations that deal with disaster preparedness, health centers, food banks, youth groups, and charitable organizations such as UNICEF, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and many others.

As tough as they are, times of trouble provide opportunities for parents to help their children learn how to manage their feelings, confront challenges, and acquire resilience. By providing a safe environment, and being calm and attentive—and seeking professional help when it’s needed—parents can alleviate the fear, dismay, or confusion children very often experience during chaotic times, as well as helping them develop coping skills that will serve them well going forward.

Although parents can’t—and shouldn’t—shelter their children from all adversity, they can help their kids learn about the imbalances in the world, and find meaningful ways to create fulfilling balances of their own.

Note:

This piece is a revised version of an article we wrote previously, published originally at www.sengifted.org and reprinted there and elsewhere around the world.   

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