Helping Children Cope With Tragic Events

Posted Mar 23, 2022

It seems as if the last few years have brought a continuous string of tragic news from the pandemic, mass shootings, and refugee crisis to natural disasters, Waukesha parade tragedy, and now war in Ukraine. The constant bad news takes a toll on most of us. If we can’t help but be effected by such a huge degree of human suffering, imagine the toll it takes on children.

In an age of 24/7 news coverage and social media, we can’t completely shelter children from all bad, often horrifying, news. Children as young as four years have an awareness of and emotional reaction to tragedies covered in news media. Yet, young children don’t have a realistic perspective on the images they see in media. They believe what they see is happening near to them because they are observing the images in their home or other familiar places. Young children also don’t understand the concept of “replay.” If they see the same news clip three times, they believe the incident took place three separate times. Children who are old enough to have a more accurate perspective do not have the emotional tools to help them understand and cope with such challenging situations. This can increase fear and anxiety about tragic events and their own safety.

So how do we help children understand and cope with tragic events? Experts offer these suggestions.

Limit Exposure to news coverage of the event. Turn off the tv, computer, or phone when children are nearby. Research after 9/11 and Hurricane Irma showed that a high level of media exposure to tragic events increased the incidences of PTSD and vicarious trauma symptoms in children.

Ask. Know that even if you restrict access to news coverage, your child will see or hear about it somewhere. They may be accepting rumors or “fake news” as truth. Ask children what they’ve heard and how they feel about it. Provide basic factual information at a level they can understand.

Let Them Talk About It.  Encourage children to ask questions and express feelings. Let them know it’s ok to feel scared, angry or sad about the events. Let them know you also feel sad. Model positive ways to deal with those emotions such as talking, physical activity, and engaging in activities you enjoy. Young children often work out difficult emotions through pretend play and art.  Provide opportunities for that and be attentive to messages they are sending through play and art.

Reassure children they are loved and safe and that adults are doing everything possible to protect them.

Emphasize the positive – even in the worst situations. Focus on what Mr. Rogers called “the helpers.” Point out the many people who are helping victims and working to make things better.

Be A Helper. Find age appropriate ways children can help to make things better. Attending a rally with you, donating or contributing to a fund raiser for victims, or creating or signing support cards and letters can empower children and help them feel less overwhelmed by tragic events.

Find more information and suggestions -

Helping Children Cope with Tragic Events in the News

Talking to Children about Tragedies and Other News Events

When the News is Scary What to Say to Kids

Talking To Children and Teens About the War in the Ukraine

How To Help Your Children Cope With Horrific Images From the War in Ukraine

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