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Helping Kids Cope with Tragedy

POSTED BY: Florida Hospital

As parents, tragedies can be difficult to address with your children. They are hearing about them on the news, social media and around their friends, and it can certainly be overwhelming. That’s why it is important to open the door to communication.
We talked with Debbie Spencer, child life coordinator at Florida Hospital, about the best ways to handle talking about tragedies with your children. As a child-development expert, she works with children on a daily basis. 

Why is it important to talk to your kids about tragic situations?

“It’s important to have open and honest communication with kids. We need to give them the truth but keep in mind, we have to balance it out by not saying too much. One of the most effective tools is to listen. Children sometimes just need a basic concrete answer and don't need all the details. Then they can get back to their routine. What they are most concerned about is how will this affect them. Does this have any implication in their daily life? Once they are reassured, they can go about their daily lives.”

What are some tips when it comes to talking with kids about this?

“Ask your kids specific questions. What do you think is going on? What are you most worried about? What is the one thing that bothers you the most about this? Remind them that it is okay to ask questions. There are no silly or dumb questions — kids need to know that they can trust that their parents will tell them the information they need to know. Specific questions can help narrow down their focus. Sometimes the questions they have might be completely unrelated to the tragedy. They might be worried about traffic or the sound of the helicopters.” 

Parents can really help set the tone, right?

“Sometimes we, as adults, will let our anxiety get the best of us. And sometimes we want to make promises. For example, when it comes to a tragic situation, children often ask if this will ever happen to them or could it happen at their school? Unfortunately, we can’t predict that it won’t, but we can let them know they are safe and secure, and there are good people here to protect them.” 

For young children, is it important to keep the explanation simple? And then, perhaps, turn the focus to the heroes?

“Yes, 100 percent. They don’t always need all the details, they just need to know they are safe. Focus on the love the community is sharing and don’t get involved in the media hype or the hate. Instead, focusing on the good things that people are doing can build resiliency and character in children as they are growing. Even in bad times, good things can happen. For people of faith, God is here and He is still doing great things and trying to make this better. Even though it is scary and sad there are still people out there doing good.” 

How can we relieve their anxiety?

“It’s our job to open up the conversation and give kids the opportunity to talk about it. They might not want to talk about it at first. They might come back to it at a completely random time. It could be a day later or it might be a week. Some children may want to be involved in support efforts by doing things like taking water and cookies to those waiting in line to donate blood. Maybe they want to write a letter or help support in some way. It’s a good way to instill good values and morals and show again that we are here to help each other.”

Is it okay for parents to express their own feelings?

“It’s okay for parents to say this makes me sad and be honest about their feelings. But it’s important to keep those feelings in check though and not to be too anxious or nervous because kids will pick up on it.” 

How can this affect children from a developmental standpoint?

“Kids are going to express their emotions and fears in different ways. Younger kids might not have the language skills to identify ways to express it. They may have sleeping issues or eating habits or regressive behaviors like sucking their thumb again that maybe you haven’t seen in awhile. And it’s normal for that to happen for a little bit of time.”

If you or a loved one is having difficulty coping with recent tragedies, it's important to reach out for help. Call us at (855) 303-DOCS for information about Florida Hospital's behavioral health services.