It’s difficult for adults to make sense of a tragedy or unexpected death, so consider how difficult it can be for children to do the same. Even events that occur far away – or the unexpected death of a celebrity – can trigger a stress response in children. Here are some ways parents can help.
Monitor your child’s news and social media intake and keep their routine and schedule as normal as possible. If your child is prone to anxiety, reassure them of their safety and ensure they are not dwelling on the tragedy.
Honor your child’s connection to the deceased – even if he or she didn’t know them personally. Talk about why this person was important to them, and the qualities and values that made this person feel special to them. Ask what your child wants to do to pay their respects or process the tragedy. This can be as simple as saying a prayer for the individuals left behind or donating to an organization important to the deceased.
Parents should also consider the five E’s of helping a child navigate emotions that come with a traumatic event:
Explore what your child already knows in a gentle and calm manner. You can start with a neutral question inquiring about how their school day was.
Explain what has happened in a way that your child can understand based on their age.
- Address any misinformation your child might have picked up at school. Help them understand that although a sad and/or scary thing did happen, adults work hard to keep children safe daily.
- Limit information you provide to your child to the questions they ask you. This will help avoid overwhelming them with information they may not already have been exposed to.
- Provide examples of ways you and others in your community keep your child safe every day.
Express to your child that feelings are normal, and it is OK to feel sad, mad or angry when a tragic event occurs. Remember to reduce media exposure after a traumatic event, as repeated exposure to the event has been associated with psychological distress and intensifying already heightened emotions.
Emotionally model for your child healthy expression of feelings because children take their cues from their parents. Describe how you cope with your distressing emotions (e.g., “When I feel sad, I talk about it with someone who makes me feel safe or I take three deep breaths.”).
Ensure stability by continuing to adhere to your child’s daily routine. This will provide them with a sense of reassurance and safety during a chaotic time. Engaging in a daily routine is not meant to ignore what has happened, rather to continue to provide the child with structure, stability and predictability.
In the wake of a tragic event, it can be difficult for parents to find the words to talk with children and teens. Below are resources and suggestions for parents on how to discuss difficult topics with their children:
- The Orange County Department of Education offers shared informational handouts on a variety of health and wellness topics, including grief support.
- The National Association of School Psychologists – When grief or loss hits close to home: tips for caregivers
- The Dougy Center – How to help a grieving child
- American Psychological Association – How to talk to children about difficult news
- Child Mind Institute – Helping children cope after a traumatic event
When to get help
Grief and shock are common after a loss or community tragedy. When this lasts longer than two to four weeks and is constant and begins to affect everyday life (schoolwork, interactions with family and friends), then therapy might be appropriate.
If you are struggling to help your child process a traumatic event, or if you feel your child could benefit from additional support, ask your pediatrician for a referral to a pediatric psychologist or psychiatrist.
Below are a few resources in Orange County with expertise in children:
- Western Youth Services
- Location: Their outreach and engagement program has multiple sites around Orange County.
- Child Guidance Center
- University of California, Irvine, Psychiatry Services
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