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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.