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Talking to Your Kids About Tragic Events

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Photography by Mijang Ka via Getty Images
Photography by Mijang Ka via Getty Images

The other day, my friend told me about a horrific event that happened at a high school in her town. A 16-year-old boy committed suicide by drinking a bottle of bleach, dousing himself with fuel, then setting himself on fire. He did this in front of 60 of his classmates, much to their horror. Her daughter was there and knew the boy. This wasn't some third world country war zone or crime-ridden urban wasteland, either. My friend lives in a middle-class suburb of Denver, Colorado.

Does it seem that school-related shootings, teen suicides and horrific crimes perpetrated by children on other children are happening more and more often? As parents, how do we talk about these events with our kids and help them move through the shock and trauma, whether recognized or not?

Helping Your Kids Through Traumatic or Difficult Times

Events such as Columbine, Sandy Hook or the Virginia Tech shooting are still relatively uncommon, so we may believe that our children are generally safe and immune from psychological trauma.

Unfortunately, this is not so. In addition to exposure to these more publicized tragedies, many kids experience other sources of stress, confusion and trauma that can erode their sense of safety and shake them to the core.

Divorce, illness or death of a loved one, moving, parental job loss or a sibling on drugs are all events that can create havoc and emotional distress for children and adolescents. Suddenly, they may have to say goodbye to family or friends, start a new school, live in a smaller home or get used to new kind of schedule, parenting structure or limits.

On the surface, your child may seem OK because they are not talking about how your new family situation or that terrible event is affecting them. That doesn't mean they're OK. Still waters run deep. Underneath, the proclamations of "I don't care" or "It's no big deal" can lie depression, anxiety and anger. Sometimes the feelings get buried because they're just too big to handle. If these repressed emotions are not addressed, they can come out in other (possibly destructive) ways.

Regardless if it's a horrible story on the news or a personal family crisis, it's vital that you are in the loop about what your children are feeling and remain an important resource for them.

The key is to engage in open discussions that address their fears, concerns and questions. Ask them what they already know about what has occurred and how they feel about what has taken place. Listen without judging their feelings. Give them space to talk openly about their perceptions without jumping into "advice mode." Also, remain calm. This is reassuring and models for them how to handle stressful situations. The important thing is to let them know you are there for them, and that they are safe and can talk to you about anything, any time.

14 Warning Signs of a Deeper Distress

It's unlikely that your kids are going to demonstrate their feelings directly by telling you, "Hey mom or dad, I can't handle how sad this is making me feel." Therefore, you'll need to pay attention to the deeper signs of disturbance that may indicate they need more help in dealing with their emotions.


• Changes in eating or appetite
• Sleep disturbance (sleeping too much or too little, nightmares, difficulty falling asleep)
• Increased physical complaints
• Increased sensitivity to sights, sounds or other stimuli related to the event
• Aggressive behavior and outbursts
• Overly focused on issues of safety or security
• Shift in daily life activity level and interests, school, or relationship with peers
• Regression to behavior of a younger child (whining, clinging, thumb sucking)


• Isolation or wanting to be alone.
• Heightened fear or anxiety.
• Easily startled or jumpy.
• Depressed or lethargic
• Irritable and short fused
• Memory loss and/or loss of concentration

Kids who have emotional problems, are very sensitive or have previously experienced trauma or difficulties may be particularly vulnerable to deeper distress. You may consider seeking professional counseling for your child if that is the case, or if they are displaying several physical and emotional signs and symptoms.

8 Things You Can Do for Your Kids

In addition to opening the lines of communication by being there to talk and listen and reassuring them that they're safe, there are other things you can do to create an environment where they can process their emotions and work through what has happened.

  1. Maintain routine and structure. Resume normal activities. This helps restore a sense of normalcy and safety.
  2. Be selective about how much exposure your child has to the replay of events.
  3. Your reactions influence your child's reactions. Avoid talking in fatalistic terms about what has happened.
  4. Acknowledge out loud what's good in the world and in your lives. List all the things for which you feel grateful each and every day with your child.
  5. Honor life. Celebrate your family. Eat a healthy meal together, go for a walk, throw a ball and go to the park.
  6. Watch a funny movie or play a favorite game together.
  7. Turn any sense of powerlessness into action. Light a candle for those who have passed. Plant a flower or tree to commemorate a transition. Say a prayer together.
  8. Spend extra time with your children.

It's Important to Take Care of Yourself Too

Events that are stressful or traumatic to children affect you as the parent, as well. It's important that you take extra special care of yourself so that you can be a solid anchor for your children, inside and out. Give yourself time to heal from the changes and events that have taken place. Get plenty of sleep, eat well and exercise. Write out your feelings, what worries you and specific antidotes for fixing or preventing the situation in the future. Acknowledge your own contribution to making your children feeling loved and making the world a better place.

As the parent, you may feel that you need additional love and support, too. Don't be afraid to talk to other adults who can understand what you're feeling and going through. Traumatic events can shake us to the core! Spending more quality time together appreciating the good things in life is the key to healing. Helping children process what they're feeling helps raise healthy, resilient adults. A few extra hugs and kisses don't hurt, either!

Sheri Meyers, Psy.D is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Los Angeles, CA, a mother of two beautiful children, and author of Chatting or Cheating: How to Detect Infidelity, Rebuild Love, and Affair-Proof Your Relationship. For a free chapter of Chatting or Cheating, please go

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