04/30/2015 02:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015

Helping Children Cope With Disaster and Violence

If you have turned on the news or scrolled through social media at all in the past few days, you have surely viewed the images of devastation from the earthquake in Nepal and the scenes of violence and chaos from the riots in Baltimore. It is sad and scary to know that such things are happening in our world, some of them a lot closer to home than others. Unfortunately, though, this is our reality and we cannot simply close our eyes to make it disappear.

Try as we may, it is impossible to completely shield our children from exposure to stories like these. Kids will see it as they flip through TV channels or, if they are older, as they scroll through their own social media. They may hear about it from friends or perhaps their church or school will encourage them to make a donation to help. My children came home today with a note informing parents that the school would be collecting "Nickels for Nepal" to send to the Red Cross because a teacher in the school has family in the area. We simply cannot insulate them from it entirely.

So, the question then becomes, how do we help children cope with these harsh realities?


1. Listen. When kids ask questions about what's happening or share with you their feelings about difficult events, the most important thing we can do is listen to them and give them the opportunity to express themselves openly.

2. Remember to talk to them on an age appropriate level. We all know we can't talk to our toddlers the same way we talk to our teenagers. When you are discussing these events with your children, keep in mind their developmental ability to understand abstract concepts, geography, and even numbers.

3. Keep it simple and follow their lead. Answer their questions, but don't go overboard. Some children might be satisfied to just hear, "Something bad happened and some people were hurt." Others, obviously, will ask more questions. There is no need to give kids more information than they ask for. They may come searching for more details later or they may be content with just the minimum facts.

4. Validate their feelings and reassure them. When Sandy Hook happened, one of my daughters had real anxiety about her own safety at school. I had to acknowledge that she was afraid and give her the opportunity voice her feelings rather than just casually saying,"Don't worry. It won't happen here." Then, I had to reassure her that her school was doing everything it could to make sure students were safe and that the school staff would always do their best to protect her.

5. Show them how to help. Sometimes, kids struggle in these situations because they feel helpless. Empower them to take action. Help them host a lemonade stand to collect donations or go shopping with them to purchase needed relief supplies. It could even be as simple as writing a letter to someone or including the event in family prayers.

6. Finally, know when to seek professional help for your children. If you notice any of the following symptoms, it may be time to have your child talk to someone who is trained in helping them deal with anxiety and stress: unusual clinginess (i.e. never wanting to leave your side), problems with sleeping such as nightmares or bedwetting, acting out, aggression, withdrawal from normal activities, seeming to be obsessed with the event by constantly watching news clips or reading about it.

No parent wants to have to discuss events like this with their children. We all wish we lived in a world where it would never be necessary. We know, however, that is not the case, so hopefully we can utilize these strategies to prepare ourselves and help our children cope when the things we don't want to think about become reality.

Lisa Witherspoon is a mother of three, a former teacher, and a blogger at The Golden Spoons. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.