fbpx

Helping Kids Cope With Tragedy

Age-by-age advice from early childhood through adolescence

Unfortunately, mass shootings and racialized violence are not uncommon in the United States. Even if they don’t happen in their community, children and teens hear about them from friends and in the news. These events may cause children to fear that an event like this could happen to them or their parents. All of us, including our children and teens, are dealing with sadness, anger and other strong emotions.

We can help our kids manage their stress and emotions as they process violence and tragedy. Here are a few tips for different age groups that can help you move forward:

Early Childhood

Even though very young babies and toddlers may not know what is going on, they may pick up a parent’s worry and anxiety with their “sixth sense.”

  • Try to stay calm around babies and toddlers.
  • Maintain normal routines as much as possible. Routines are reassuring for babies.
  • Shield babies and toddlers from media coverage as much as possible.
  • Look for non-verbal signs that your toddler may be anxious. This might include being scared to go outside or to daycare, extra weepy, clingy, or irritable. Provide extra reassurance and time together.
  • Take the lead from your toddler. Don’t bring it up yourself unless they show signs of distress or ask questions.

Preschoolers

Preschoolers may be more tuned in to what is happening. They may have questions about violence, and death.

  • Safety is a primary concern for this age group. Reassure them that you will do everything you can keep them safe.
  • Preschoolers are also concerned about the safety of parents, relatives, and friends. Reassure them. Let them know your whereabouts and keep your commitments to them.
  • Preschoolers are not always able to distinguish fantasy and reality. Limit media exposure.
  • Look for non-verbal signs that your preschooler may be anxious. This might include being extra weepy, clingy, or irritable.
  • Bedtimes are very important. Stories, books and tuck-ins are crucial.
  • Try to maintain your children’s normal routines if possible.
  • Give them lots of hugs and physical reassurance.
  • Take the lead from your preschooler. Don’t bring it up yourself unless they show signs of distress or ask questions.

Elementary School

School age children will be more aware of what is going on. They have probably had discussions with friends.

  • Talk to your elementary age children. Explain what happened and share the facts while reassuring them that you will do everything you can to keep them safe.
  • Children this age are also concerned about their own safety, as well as that of family and friends. Try to spend extra time together. This will provide extra reassurance.
  • Ask them if they have any questions. If they do, tell them what you know without exaggerating or overreacting.
  • Don’t be surprised if they are more irritable, touchy, or tired. Be extra patient.
  • Limit TV coverage.
  • Try to continue normal routines when possible, especially at bedtime.
  • If fear persists, point out all the things community members are doing to help. Children like to be helpful and feel like they can do something. Children can write a letter, create art, send supplies, or take part in faith and interfaith vigils.

Middle School

Children this age will be very aware of what is going on. They have probably seen many of the images online or been in the streets themselves taking action.

  • Talk to your middle school children and answer any questions. This will help you determine how much they know and may help you correct any misinformation they might have.
  • Acknowledge any feelings of confusion, fear, horror, and anger.
  • Provide extra comfort and reassurance.
  • Children this age will be more interested in what might happen in the future. Don’t burden them with fears that you might have and provide reassurance that you are doing everything you can to keep them safe.
  • Some children may act out scary feelings through misbehavior. Others may become more withdrawn. Pay attention to the many faces of stress and ask them to tell you about their feelings.
  • Some young people might want to take action in some way. Get your kids connected to positive responses in the community either directly connected to the event or related to ongoing work on countering gun violence and/or racialized violence.
  • Talk to your kids about what they see on TV or read online.
  • This event may trigger existing anxiety, anger or fears about personal and community safety, especially for youth who have experienced violence, racism, and trauma. Listen to your child. Listen listen listen. And assure your child that you are working hard alongside them to make sure all people feel safe.
  • Seek out positive media – watch, read, and share stories of resilience, organizing, advocacy, and support with your child.

High School

High school students have probably had conversations with their friends on and offline. They might have fears about what this will mean for their own safety and or have questions about larger related issues including racism, criminal justice and policing, gun control, and public policy.

  • Questions about safety are all legitimate issues for this age group. It is important to discuss these topics with them.
  • Acknowledge any fear, sadness, and anger they have.
  • Some teens may want to block out the whole thing. It may appear that they do not care. This often masks real fears and feelings of being overwhelmed.
  • Some teens may make jokes. Humor can be a way to help them cope, but discourage them from humor that disregards the importance of taking the tragedy seriously.
  • Talk to your kids about what they see on TV or read online.
  • Some teens may be very interested in discussing the policy and/or political issues involved. Be willing to engage them in serious discussions about related issues included public safety, white supremacy, police violence, media coverage and stereotyping, and gun control.
  • Some young people might want to take action in some way. Get your kids connected to positive responses in their community either directly connected to the event or related to ongoing advocacy and organizing.
  • This event may trigger existing anxiety, anger or fears about personal and community safety, especially for youth who have experienced violence. Listen to your child. Listen listen listen. And assure your child that you are working hard alongside them to make sure all people feel safe and respected.
  • Seek out accurate and affirming media – watch, read, and share stories of resilience, organizing, advocacy, and support with your child.

Even as any single event recedes from the headlines, the culture of hatred and violence that fueled the violence do not go away. For more resources on how to talk and teach about white supremacy, check out:

  1. Resources for Talking to Kids About Race, Racism, and Racialized Violence Center for Racial Justice in Education
  2. Beyond the Golden Rule: A Parent’s Guide to Preventing and Responding to Prejudice via Teaching Tolerance
  3. The Dos and Dont’s of Talking to Kids of Color About White Supremacy via ColorLines and Race Forward
  4. An Invitation to White Parents – Let’s Talk to Our Kids About Race and Racism via Mind Positive Parenting