How to Help Children Deal When Tragedy Strikes

By , Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt. Ph.D
Our nation faced an unthinkable tragedy on the morning of December 14.  The school shooting in Newtown, CT, instantly became something that we could not wrap our brains around.  We try, but the answers that we seek do not come.  We struggle to comprehend it as adults and as parents, to choose the right words when speaking with our children, and to figure out how we can protect those around us who are more precious than anything on earth.

On the one hand, it seems an impossible task to try to write anything that can even remotely address people’s needs in response to the horrific  news that has been plastered on our television and computer screens, our mobile devices, and the black and white print around us.  On the other hand, it feels inappropriate to write about anything else at this time. (I began writing this less than 24 hours after the event.)
In the aftermath of a tragedy that is beyond our comprehension, people’s initial shocked reactions include the questions: "How could this happen?"  "Why?"  "Who would do something like this?" Even those in the news media, visibly shaken by the event as they reported on it, asked those questions.

With time, we can come up with intellectual answers to these questions that focus on the identification of the perpetrator, realization of the individual’s background and history, and a piecing together of the events that led up to the incomprehensible.  And with time, an increasing amount of the factual details will come together to tell a (perhaps fateful, and definitely tragic) tale. 

The emotional dealings with the aftermath are a much different matter.  Here, we face the struggle as human beings to comprehend the bigger religious, moral, mental health, human nature, and justice-related questions of just how something like this can happen.  Especially at a school, to our youngest children and to those who lovingly devoted their lives to the care of those children.

The President of the United States spoke, as the leader of our nation, but also as one of us, a parent who was heartbroken by the news from Connecticut.  The Governor of the Connecticut arrived and addressed the town personally in church.  And there was the priest from a local parish who has worked tirelessly to try to meet the many needs of individuals and families through personal interaction and a public service for the town.  Despite their efforts, none can adequately relieve the pain of the unthinkable.

Many who were interviewed on television were asked what they told their children.  Answers ranged from trying to go about family events without a lot of discussion to allowing their children to be interviewed and questioned about the events on television.  Several that I heard added the words, "I hope I am doing the right thing."  It is easier to argue what we should not do (e.g., shut down communication with our children about the event or speak in ways that are too developmentally mature and perhaps frightening to children); it is harder to find the approach that represents the right thing.  And, of course, there is no single right thing. 

As psychologists, there is overlap in what we offer to parents as advice for dealing with any difficulties that our children face: Allow open communication, provide love and attention, and help children to feel safe and protected.  A tragedy occurred at my son’s school just two days before Thanksgiving.  As a community, we dealt with the tragic and unexpected death of a 6-year-old girl.  We loved.  We communicated.  We protected.  These are the tools that we have and the tools that we can use.  They may not seem like enough, but the most primitive actions seem to be the best ones we have.  Love.  Communicate.  Protect.

The American Psychological Association issued advice in an article entitled "Helping your child manage distress in the aftermath of a shooting."  Woven throughout their list of advice and tips for parents are the themes of love, communication, and protection.  Do talk to your child—at an appropriate time, in a way that is appropriate for their age and level of understanding, in a non-judgmental and open-eared way, and with love and reassurance.  Be aware of your child’s behavior: Are they acting differently?  Are they anxious?  Do they appear fearful?  If you see signs of them facing difficulty, try to address it with them either directly through conversation or more delicately through art or journaling.  Try to manage which information your child has exposure to.  The news and internet can be overwhelming even for adults.  Provide children with updates so their curiosity does not lead them to searching for answers on platforms that are too mature for their age.  Finally, take good care of yourself.  Deal with your own emotions and difficulties so that you are better equipped to handle theirs.

Since Friday, I have spoken with or somehow communicated with a good number of parents in my area.  One parent at a Cub Scout meeting said to me in the most serious way, "I am a loss for how to deal with this.  What do I do?"  I heard from a friend about another mother who chose to not tell her 6- and 8-year old boys.  Another mother described how her 6-year-old son and her 8-year-old daughter reacted completely differently.  All were struggling with what to do and how to do it, and also with trying to understand why their children or family were reacting in a particular way as opposed to another. 

We cannot predict neither our children’s reactions nor our own.  Not all children will react in the same manner.  Their reaction today may be different from their reaction tomorrow.  All have different histories and experience with tragedy and loss.  Some may find strength through religion.  Some may find fear in the school building.  Regardless of the specifics surrounding any one child, we must help them all in whatever way they need us.  If it means sitting on the floor and playing with them, then do it.  To a young child, that is safety.  If it means more concretely addressing issues of safety, then do it.  For an older child, that may be what they need. 
Put simply:  Do the best you can.  Be there in the best way you can.  Get to know your children.  Hug them and tell them that you love them.

Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt
is Chairperson of the Department of Psychology at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on social and emotional development in childhood and adolescence. She has published research on parent-child attachment, friendship, peer relations, bullying, and mentoring. She has also done consulting work with schools as part of their bullying prevention and intervention programs. Michelle recently published the book Friendships in Childhood and Adolescence (Guilford Press), which explores the significance of friendship from toddlerhood through adolescence. The book examines factors that contribute to positive friendships, how positive friendships influence children’s lives, and interventions for those who have friendship difficulties. Michelle is the mother of a 7-year-old son, William, and a 2-year-old bulldog named Eve. She enjoys yoga, kayaking, writing, and cooking.

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CSROBERTSON621 2/18/2018
Sorry that this article is yet again timely. And that my preschooler is doing “shelter in place” drills with his classmates. Report
PINKFLAMINGO777 11/2/2017
Several of you have expressed concern that your children do not seem disturbed by the incident. However, be assured that it is typical for such horrible things to go over the heads of children. In fact, if they do express extreme emotions, they may be developmentally advanced. Young children have yet to develop a sense of what exists beyond their here and now environment; they simply haven't acquired the emotional skills to wrap their developing minds around such a tragedy. For example, I was four years old when 9/11 happened. I had never heard of the twin towers, I did not understand what the incident meant for our country, and I couldn't wrap my mind around the death toll. I remember watching the news of it unfold, and they interviewed a man in New York who was hysteric over the situation. I had never seen a man cry like that, and I actually laughed because I didn't understand why he was so upset over the loss of a building. However, as I watched and listened to the emotionally developed adults in my life, I began to understand why the situation was so tragic. As I grew older, I understood and sypathyzied more. Now my view on the incident is fully developed, and I can understand why the man was so hysteric. Remember that like walking, talking, reading, etc., children are not born with emotional skills. Emotional skills develop as a child learns and grows. The best way for parents to get children to that point is by openly expressing and encouraging appropriate emotional responses. Report
Uncharted 5 will be unbelievable if Cassie came in as Nate's replacement! As the daughter of Elena and Nathan, she has all the resources she will ever need to become the next treasure hunter in the family. Report
This horrible loss of innocent lives is so awful. In our family my son-in-law and all of us are all dealing with another senseless death two weeks ago. His 80 year old father father went for his daily walk and was stabbed to death by a 17 year old girl who didn't know him. She was arrested but we are also dealing with why did she do it? He had never done anything wrong. This is a small community where things like that just don't happen. Report
I teach yoga to young children. I am so glad that this month I am using the book "Good People Everywhere" which focuses on all of the people all over the world doing good things. We need to do the same for this event. One person did an awful thing. Hundreds of people responded and came to help. I heard that one teacher kept telling her students, "The good guys are coming." And they did and I believe always will. Isn't that an important message for our children? Report
I'm concerned about this because it tore me up (and still is) & my kids don't seem to be upset at all. (they're 6 and 8) They just see it as a bad guy who did a bad thing. I'm hoping it's not denial & will hit them later. I just wonder why my kids aren't scared or sad or anything...has anyone else had this reaction from their kids? I'm hoping it's not that they're that numb to violence (because of media & anything else they're exposed to). Report
My little one has been praying every night for God to be in our hearts. I cannot understand why this happened, there is no reason that will make sense to me. There is evil in this world and in some countries, children are at risk every day. All I can do is to pray for peace and God in everyone's hearts. Report
I appreciate the article and also request an article or suggestions from the community on helping adults cope with this tragedy. Children are certainly paramount but I am dealing with a number of adults (colleagues and friends) who are struggling to get through each day.

This thing will never "make sense;" there will only be explanations of timelines, events, and background. My friends who want to understand how this could happen seem to be the most devastated.

Many of us have dealt with first hand tragedy - and have come to accept that some things will never "make sense." We have learned to focus on accepting the tragedy in context (the shooting was horrible but it is not an every day occurrence - hence the horror), experiencing the fear, pain, and grief thoroughly but not dwelling on them exclusively, and hopefully move onto focusing on acceptance and healing as quickly as possible.

My thoughts and prayers are with the families and community of Sandy Hook as well as with all of us shaken and affected by this tragedy.

I hope everyone can find a moment of peace and comfort during this difficult time; perhaps by finding a moment to focus on what we each have to be grateful for.

Namaste' Report
As a public school teacher, I have emphasized to my students that school is a safe place, and that the teachers' first priority is to keep their students safe. We work hard to make our school a safe place for all. Report
This tragedy has hit me HARD! My daughter, Madilyn is 6, soon to be 7 and she is my WORLD! This morning, when I put her on the school bus, and they drove away, I stood there and cried! I couldn't help but thinking that all those parents put their kids on the school bus Friday morning and expected that they'd come home safely that afternoon and then their world shattered.
So sad!
Peace to all! Report
It is sad. Report
My kids are adults yet I'm having a very difficult time handling this. When my daughter was three, I was looking into putting her in daycare so that I could work full time. That was when Laurie Dann shot a little boy in Winnetka, Il. I was too frightened to go through with putting her daycare. I was really rattled. Now this!

I can't listen to Christmas music. I have broken into tears several times the last few days. I can't begin to think how I could deal with this if my kids were that age or worse, one of the kids that were killed that day. How do those parents go on?

I wish I could go there and hug all of them! Report
Without meaning to take anything away from this event, I kept thinking this sort of thing happens to all of us in our lives. We all experience Death, disappointments ,etc. Sadly I guess some pain is the cost of living in this flawed world. Report
It is sad to what our children have to see and deal with today. I just wish their was a better way. I wish each of those that made it through my Heart felt wishes.

I remember as a child experiencing a shoplifter in a large dept. store and how fright I was as my Mother , I and Other were hiding . My Father and another man were trying to get him away from all of us till security and police came. It all came back to me these this last few weeks with all the tragedy.

I like to share something with everyone and if you are interested please go to my Spark page it is on my Blog, it is in honor of those that lost their lives these past few weeks to tragedy.

Wishing everyone the Best this holiday. Report
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