How parents can support their children and themselves following distressing events
When a deeply distressing event like a school shooting happens, affected children will cope and recover better if they feel safe and have care and attention from their loved ones
Parents are central to providing the support and sense of safety and security that children need during times of crisis. Many parents are concerned with how best to help their children. Some may be struggling to deal with their own responses and emotions.
The following tips may guide parents to help their children cope after a distressing event.
1. Reassure children that they are safe and are being taken care of
Reassurances may need to be repeated frequently, even after the immediate event has passed. Most important, spending extra time with your child can also help them to feel safe. Show your children that you care about them, for example, by being affectionate, smiling, telling them your love them, giving hugs, or holding hands. Physical contact can help to create a feeling of safety. Explain how the safety of the community is being helped by parents, teachers, the community and government.
2. Learn about how your child feels
Children react to stressful events in different ways, and their reactions may change from one moment to the next. Common reactions include headaches, stomachaches, changes to appetite, trouble sleeping and nightmares, difficulty concentrating, and returning to ways they used to behave when they were younger, for example clinging to parents, bedwetting, frequent crying, and fear of being left alone. Some children may become unusually active or aggressive. Others may become more shy, quiet, or withdrawn. Girls and boys and children and adolescents of varying ages may have different reactions and need to be supported in different ways.
Choose a time and place when your child is more likely to feel comfortable talking freely, such as during a family meal. Try to avoid talking about the topic just before bedtime. Ask the child how they are feeling. Acknowledge how hard this time is for them. Take time to listen to them and try to understand what they have experienced. Make sure to assure them that whatever they are feeling is natural.
Acknowledge how the child is feeling, for example, by saying, 'I can see that this is really hard for you,' 'it seems like you are feeling worried', or 'it sounds like you are feeling angry'. Do not tell your child what emotions they 'should' or 'should not' feel. Telling a child 'don't be sad' or 'don't be angry' or 'don't cry' usually does not stop them from feeling this way, but it can make them feel more alone and misunderstood. Help them to understand that it is normal to feel sad and cry.
Show that you’re listening by giving them your full attention and remind them that they can talk to you or another trusted adult whenever they like.
If the child doesn’t want to talk, let them know you’re there if and or when they’re ready to talk.
3. Engage in an honest, open conversation about what has occurred
To the extent that your child wishes to discuss what happened, engage in open conversations, using language they understand depending on their age. Try to give children honest information about what has happened. Get accurate, reliable information from websites of reputable news organizations. Explain that some information online isn’t accurate and remind them that it's important to find reliable sources.
Let them know you’re there to talk and to answer questions about anything related to the event, including their own safety.
Remember that it’s okay to not have the answer to every question.
4. Keep calm and maintain structure in place
You might feel sad or worried, but keep in mind that kids take their emotional cues from adults, so try not to overshare any fears with your child. Speak calmly and be mindful of your body language, such as facial expressions. Remember that taking care of yourself will help make you stronger and better able to look after the children you care about (see tips below).
Keep bedtimes, meals schedules, and other family rules consistent. Encourage play and exercise and try to build in extra times for children to connect with friends and relatives.
5. Limit media exposure
Protect your child from upsetting, alarming media coverage. Remember to monitor their social media channels, as well as internet, radio, and TV. Check where they are getting information from to make sure it’s an accurate source.
Consider switching off the news around younger children. With older children, consider scrolling news or social media together and using this as an opportunity to discuss what news sources they trust and how much time they spend consuming news.
As much as possible, try to create positive distractions like playing a game or going for a walk together. Consider putting phones away before bedtime.
6. When to look for extra help
Remember, it is normal for children to have some immediate mental health reactions in stressful times, and it does not necessarily mean that they need to see a psychologist or psychiatrist or that they need medication. Most children will cope and recover well if they feel safe, if their basic needs are met, and if they have care and attention from loved ones.
However, you may want to consider accessing professional help if your child:
- is harming themselves or talking about harming themselves, or has expressed thoughts about harming others;
- has stress reactions that are severe or last for a long time (e.g. more than a month), or are getting worse instead of better;
- is unable to carry out their usual daily activities due to their distress;
- is having an increasingly difficult time relating to friends and family;
- is experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks about the event;
- increasingly avoids things that remind them of the distressing event.
The following tips may help parents take care of themselves
1. Allow yourself time to heal
Allow yourself time and space to experience and express your feelings about what happened. Be patient with yourself, as it is normal after a terrifying or stressful event to experience mood fluctuations, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, and disrupted sleep or appetite, among other reactions.
Remember, you do not have to be a perfect caregiver every day! During stressful times, it can be a challenge to care for yourself and your family. Be kind and gentle with yourself, and rest when you can.
2. Ask for and provide support
Recognize that you are not alone in what you are experiencing and feeling, and support and accept help from friends, relatives, and others. Spend time talking with other adults who understand what you are going through.
While it is always a good idea to seek support from loved ones, remember that those in your typical support system may be compromised if they experienced the same event. If this is the case, you may also want to find out about local support groups.
3. Maintain routine and healthy behaviors
To the extent possible, maintain healthy behaviours such as eating nutritious meals, drinking sufficient amounts of water, getting adequate rest and exercising. Keeping to routine will help you cope effectively and some level of normalcy for the family after a traumatic event. Try to avoid negative coping behaviors like drinking too much alcohol, as this could make your situation worse in the long term.
4. Avoid making major life decisions
While it may be tempting to move or change jobs after a distressing event, it is usually best to avoid making major life decisions during times of stress and turmoil.
5. Limit what you see
If you watch a lot of media coverage - especially with graphic images - it may increase your stress levels. This can lead to more mental health issues. Limit what you see and don’t watch videos if you think they may upset you.
Remember that you’ll be able to help your kids better if you’re coping well, too. Children will pick up on your own response to the news, so it helps them to know that you are calm and in control.