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Helping Children Cope with Tragedy

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Helping Children Cope with Tragedy

Tips and resources for parents and caregivers

Washington, DC—Reports on the Newtown, CT tragedy continue to dominate the news and daily conversations. Such high profile violence can confuse and frighten children who look to adults for reassurance and guidance on how to act. The District of Columbia Department of Mental Health offers the following tips to parents and caregivers to help children cope with the aftermath of this tragedy:

  • Reassure children that they are safe. It is important to keep in mind that an event like this—while horrific—is rare. Emphasize that schools are safe places and an important place to receive support and return to normalcy.  
  • Make time to talk. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them in perspective, and assist them in expressing them appropriately. Let their questions be your guide about how much information to provide.
  • Observe children’s emotional state. Children and youth do not always talk about their feelings readily and may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite and sleep patterns can indicate a child’s level of anxiety or discomfort. Stay close—many children want actual physical contact—and provide ways for children to express emotion either through journaling, writing letters, painting a picture or music.Observe children’s emotional state. Children and youth do not always talk about their feelings readily and may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite and sleep patterns can indicate a child’s level of anxiety or discomfort. Stay close—many children want actual physical contact—and provide ways for children to express emotion either through journaling, writing letters, painting a picture, or music.
  • Keep your explanations of the event developmentally appropriate, clear and straightforward. Limit exposure to media coverage as inappropriate information can cause anxiety or confusion.

  • Return to normalcy and routine while maintaining flexibility.   Keeping to a regular schedule can be reassuring and promote physical health. Ensure that children get plenty of sleep, regular meals, and exercise.

These and other tips can be found at http://www.nasponline.org.  In addition, the DC Public Library offers a list of Web and book resources at http://dclibrary.org/helpingkidscope.

Most children and youth will cope well with the support of families, friends and other adults. However, some children who suffer from depression or other mental illness, have a past traumatic experience or personal loss, or have special needs may be at greater risk than others for severe reactions.  The Department of Mental Health operates an emergency mobile crisis services to provide mental health supports for children and youth. If you need help, call (202) 481-1450. Or, go to  dmh.dc.gov to learn about available mental health services.