How to Care for Yourself and Your Kids When Acts of Violence Are in the News
Mass tragedies have devastating consequences—first and foremost, for the victims, their families, and emergency responders, but also for everyone absorbing the news at home. The images are often searing; the human toll is devastating. For people who have endured previous trauma, these events can be particularly difficult to process. And for children, news like this can be deeply frightening, especially in our 24/7 media culture.
Here’s some information for anyone asking how to better care for themselves and the children in their lives after a mass tragedy.
How adults sometimes react
Mass tragedies can threaten our sense of security in the places that make up our daily lives: schools, movie theaters, nightclubs, trains, and neighborhoods. When these events occur, even if we aren’t directly impacted, we might experience emotional and physical repercussions, including:
- Helplessness or hopelessness
- Anxiety; fear for our own safety and that of family or friends
- Numbness or feeling like nothing matters
- Worry; feeling guilty without knowing why
- Difficulty sleeping1
People who have experienced a trauma in their own life or who already struggle with depression or anxiety may experience post-traumatic stress after a mass tragedy.2 They may have flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts, and they may find themselves avoiding people or things that upset them. Michelle Palmer, the executive director of the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing, suggests seeking professional help if you were not directly affected by an event but still
- Have significant changes in your behavior or mood lasting two to four weeks or longer
- Can’t sleep or work, or find yourself continuing to read about or research the event
What you can do
Mass tragedies can amplify fears and anxieties for our safety and the safety of people we love. Palmer offers suggestions for actions we can take to help feel safer:
1. Do what you can to prepare. Many cities and schools have plans for disaster response and lockdowns in the event of a threat. See if your city and school have them. Find out if you have one at work or wherever you spend a lot of time.
2. Check in with friends and family. Our loved ones can be a source of support during trying times.
3. Turn off the T.V. and take a break from social media. Limit your exposure to both graphic images and the divisiveness and blame that can follow a mass tragedy.
4. Do something to help. Raise money or collect supplies for people directly affected by the event. Volunteer for organizations that support a relevant cause, like helping people with mental health issues. Write to your senators or congressperson about issues that you feel impact your health and safety.
5. Take care of yourself. Eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep. Write or talk about your feelings.
How children sometimes react
Children can have many responses to mass tragedies. Some may not express their feelings in words but instead reveal them in their drawings or the games they play. Some may revert to behaviors they had outgrown, like bed-wetting or sucking their thumb. Some may have trouble concentrating or experience changes in appetite or sleep patterns. They may be cranky, act out, or become more defiant. Some have a hard time being separated from parents or caregivers. It’s normal for kids to feel anxious, scared, worried, or sad in response to a mass tragedy.3
Signs that a child may need help
While most children will be able to cope when they have support from the adults in their lives, some may need extra care. If children are experiencing other stresses or crises they may be more vulnerable to the emotional impact of a mass tragedy. Watch for these signs that might indicate a need to speak with the child’s pediatrician, teacher, or a mental health counselor.
- A return to behaviors they had outgrown (bed-wetting, thumb-sucking) lasting longer than two to four weeks.
- Complaints of physical pains or illness—that’s often how stress manifests in children. Take these complaints seriously and call the pediatrician to rule out medical problems.
- Significant changes in personality or school performance that last longer than about a month.
How to talk to children about tragedies
As Michelle Palmer says, “Little children have big ears.” You may think they’re busy playing, but they hear your conversations or the news broadcast in the background. It’s critical that you take some time to work through your own emotions before talking about the event. According to Tuesday’s Children, a nonprofit that supports survivors of traumatic loss, “We can and should let kids know that we are sad, but we have to convey hope and show them how to build resilience in overcoming and learning from negative experiences. Children will ‘hear’ their parents’ emotional reactions and internalize those.”
Ideally, you and your children will be having ongoing conversations about physical safety topics before a tragedy occurs. Talk about what to do if a stranger approaches, how to find each other if you’re separated at a store, or who to turn to for help during an emergency. When a tragedy does happen, it’s best if children can ask you questions about it instead of letting their imaginations run wild. Tuesday’s Children recommends that parents prepare to talk to kids about mass tragedies, especially mass shootings in schools, terrorism, or other violent events that disrupt a child’s sense of safety. Here are tips to help guide your conversation:
1. Be mindful of what information kids of their age need.
- Small children: Let your kids take the lead before offering up everything you know. See what questions they have about what happened. Use simple words to ask children how they feel. Avoid metaphors; kids may not understand them. Listen for misinformation or hidden fears. Reassure them that teachers, their principal, police officers, and many other adults work to keep them safe at home and at school.
- 7- to 11-year-olds: The same strategies apply as with small kids, but don’t be surprised if they ask for gory details. It’s developmentally normal. Be honest but not overly detailed in your responses.
- Older kids: They may have more grown-up questions about religions, cultures, and civil rights, so be prepared with answers that align with your family values. You’ll have less control over their social media habits, but you can express your preference to try to limit the graphic images they see. Explain that those images can make it hard to concentrate and can cause nightmares.
2. Reassure them without overpromising. Remind children of all ages that although it’s terrible when anyone is hurt or killed, these events, on the whole, are rare. Reassure them that people work hard to find out why an event happened and what we can learn from it to avoid future tragedies. Don’t make promises for things you have no control over.
3. Talk about what to do if something bad happens. Have a plan for what to do at home, school, or anywhere else your child spends time. If you don’t know the plan at school, ask. Be an advocate for a solid safety plan.
4. Remind them that there is good in the world. Life isn’t always safe. People sometimes commit terrible acts of violence. But there are also people who risk their own safety to help others. These events are a chance to teach children about goodness, courage, and compassion.
5. Limit screen time. According to Tuesday’s Children, media can have an impact on the way children respond to and understand traumatizing events. For example, many younger children watching the news after 9/11 thought that the attacks were happening over and over again. Psychotherapist Dr. Donna Gaffney suggests that children under seven not watch any news reports about these tragedies. She also recommends that older children not watch coverage by themselves. Sit with them so you know what content they are viewing. Notice their reactions and ask what’s on their mind. For example: “You’re kind of quiet. Tell me what you’re thinking.”
6. Volunteer together. Make care packages for first responders. Write letters or send cards to kids impacted by the event. Attend a peaceful protest together. Encourage kids to take action—speaking up and doing something helps us cope and build resilience.4
7. Encourage self-care. Help children discover ways to find relief and support. Encourage them to use coping strategies that have worked for them before, especially talking to others about their feelings. Some additional ideas: Read a comforting bedtime story. Play relaxing music. Give hugs. Try a deep-breathing exercise.
Above all, Michelle Palmer advises parents to “create an environment where kids can talk to you about these events and how they feel about them. If that isn’t possible, find a trusted adult that your child can go to when they’re struggling.”