Aug 27, 2015 Post By: Children's Health

Helping Your Child Cope with Hard Events
In response to the shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut, Dr. Pete Stavinoha, a neuropsychologist at Children's Health, gives tips on talking to kids when tragedy strikes.

We all remember the tragic shooting in Connecticut, and if your children ever want to discuss this event, or something similar, we want you to be prepared.

Pete Stavinoha, Ph.D., a child neuropsychologist at Children’s, says that while you should discuss tough events with your children, the subject could also raise anxieties in children who see the images on TV or hear about them on the radio or online, so it’s always important to monitor their time listening to, watching and interacting with the news.


Tips for talking to your children

Dr. Stavinoha suggests that you:

Dr. Pete Stavinoha
Dr. Pete Stavinoha
  • Give your children a sense of personal safety and security. Your children will be looking to you for guidance on how to react and relying on you for reassurance and a sense of normalcy.
  • As the story unfolds, monitor your child's exposure to the shootings. Keep tabs on what your children are seeing and hearing about the shootings, and be available to answer any questions.
  • Don't unnecessarily expose your children to media coverage of these events. Younger children should not have any exposure to media coverage, and if older children are interested, watch it with them.
  • Even young children may gain information through peers or a chance exposure to TV news, so be aware of this and be ready to help the children process this information.
  • Monitor your own reaction, and model a sense of calm for children.
  • Point out steps that are being taken to help ensure your child's safety at his school.
  • As questions arise, tell children the truth in a developmentally appropriate answer. Do not speculate or overwhelm the child with more information than he is seeking. Also, do not close discussion of the topic - letting children ask questions and express anxieties can be very helpful in the coping process.
  • Do not dictate a reaction to your child or dismiss their reaction. Your child should have the message that feelings of uncertainty, fear or anxiety are normal reactions to events like this.
  • Be aware of signs and symptoms of anxiety and stress so you are prepared to let your child express his feelings according to his timeline.
  • Continue to maintain a sense of normalcy at home and at school. This means staying with normal routines for meals, homework, bed time, etc. Understand that if your child is struggling with anxiety and stress, he may have difficulty completing his schoolwork, falling asleep at night, etc.
  • At the same time, do not be overly rigid about routines. Rather, try to maintain the normal schedule in order to provide children with a sense of predictability and security.
  • If your child has experienced a previous traumatic event, personal loss, significant life change, or if he has a mental illness, he is at risk for having trouble coping with an event like this and may be in greater need of support.
  • Be aware of warning signs of high anxiety and fear including persistent worry about his own safety or the safety of loved ones, problems falling asleep or other sleep disturbances such as nightmares, withdrawal from family and friends, excessive clinginess and dependence, irritability, sadness or decreased activity, preoccupation with the recent shootings or ideas of death and violence, agitated behavior and nonspecific physcial complaints. Contact your pediatrician or mental health professional if you have concerns.
  • Involve your child in activities such as prayer groups, church activities or volunteer work for community agencies that assist victims of crime or traumatic events. Younger children can be encouraged to draw pictures or write cards in support of victims of the shootings or other violent crimes and traumatic events.

If your child is old enough, watch news reports or read the news together to encourage conversation about the topic. PBS has age-appropriate guidelines about how much news children should be watching and what they will understand about the news.