HELPING CHILDREN COPE WITH NATIONAL TRAGEDY:
GUIDELINES FOR EDUCATORS AND PARENTS

Events such as the current tragedy our country is experiencing are, in truth, beyond our control. However, what is within our control is our response to them. The following guidelines suggest some strategies to help adults to assist children in responding to and dealing with this tragedy.

  1. Adults must identify and come to terms with their own feelings before they will be able to assist children in dealing with theirs. Expression of the shock, disbelief and anger that are common initial reactions to trauma is the critical first step for adults. The intensity of feelings is often diminished once they are expressed and validated. This process will also serve as an example for children about the importance of putting what we feel inside into words.
  2. All feelings that are expressed by children should be accepted and validated ("I understand how confused you are about what is happening", "I know that you are angry, and it’s okay to feel that way"). It is also important to reassure children that all of their responses are normal, and that even adults feel confused, angry and scared.
  3. Children may want to review the events over and over. This strategy is also used by adults and helps in coming to terms with the tragedy. This is a normal response to events for which we have no prior frame of reference. Be patient with both children and adults who may be using this coping technique.
  4. Children will be affected and frightened by observing the emotions expressed by adults. In particular:
  5. A) They may see adults crying about potential losses or crying with relief over unexpected rescues. Explain to children that crying is the body’s way to express intense emotions. Reassure them that they can offer support to grownups who might be in tears by using the same techniques adults use to comfort them when they are crying.

    B) Children may also hear adults express anger and rage. Acknowledge that anger is a common response, yet remind children that the government will be investigating what happened to make sure that the appropriate people are punished and we must be careful about whom we blame in the meantime.

  6. Recognize the impact of the media on children. Television accounts have been very graphic and newspaper stories often include dramatic images of disaster. When children are exposed to media, make sure to ask them how they felt about what they have seen or read.
  7. Limiting television viewing of the events and their aftermath is one way both children and adults can get some emotional distance from the events. Constant viewing and reviewing of what happened keeps the events fresh in our minds and reinforces their intensity.
  8. Maintaining normal routine as much as possible is helpful. The example set by our government officials of going about business as usual is a helpful example which should be used by individuals and schools as well. In times of crisis, the structure and order of the environment is critical in helping to restore feelings of safety and of being in control.
  9. Make sure children and adults who were personally effected by this trauma get extra help. Local mental health resources are prepared and ready to provide counseling and support to individuals and families touched by this tragedy. Make use of these services! Seeking immediate help can lessen long term consequences.
  10. It is critical for both adults and children to remember that we can be reassured that our government is doing everything it can to provide for our safety. While our county may have experienced a crisis, it is also important to keep in mind that our national resources have also been mobilized to protect us. As Senator Joseph Biden reminded us in his remarks to the country, "… in moments of crisis, the American spirit shines forth as courageous, dauntless, and enduring."