Children process events and grief differently from adults. We asked Dr. Kristen Davis-Coelho what to say to children and what to watch for following a tragic event.
When beloved children’s show creator Fred Rogers was a child and would see scary things in the news, his mother would say, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Beyond the comforting thought that there are more helpers than those doing harm, how else can parents help their children navigate tragic events beyond their control?
Kristen Davis-Coelho, PhD, BA, MA, administrator of the Behavioral Health and Addiction Institute at Renown Health, says parents should make sure they talk with their children about the event. But how do you start that difficult and maybe emotional conversation? No matter the child’s age or developmental stage, parents can start by asking the child what they’ve already heard.
“For school-age children, it’s about what they know,” Davis-Coelho says. “Ask what they’ve heard, their thoughts about it, and whether they are feeling sad, scared or worried about the safety of their own family. And those are all typical reactions.”
For younger children, there should be far less discussion and more emphasis on ensuring they feel safe and secure.
“With young children, like preschoolers, you shouldn’t be addressing the tragedy with them,” Davis-Coelho explains. “It’s more about protecting them from disturbing images, overexposure on the media and really distraught adults. They don’t have the ability yet to process this information or put it in context.”
Talking to Kids With Special Needs
For speaking to children with delays or disabilities, it’s important to keep in mind the individual needs of the child and their developmental age and ability, not actual age.
“Parents should trust what they know about their child, how they process information and what their emotional reactions are like,” she says. “So if they know their child emotionally is more like a 3 or 4-year-old, then they should address it at that level. If they know intellectually their child might not be able to grasp what’s happening, then they need to keep the messages very simple and straightforward.”
And that’s good advice for every parent and caregiver in any situation — know your child, what’s typical behavior for them and what they are capable of processing.
Expressing Your Own Emotions
Also for parents and caregivers of school-aged children and older — it’s fine to express emotion, as long as you keep it in check and don’t overwhelm the child.
“It’s absolutely OK to show your own emotional reactions and talk about those, as long as you are not so overly distraught that it becomes an additional stressor or scary,” she says.
For younger kids, expressing a lot of emotion will likely be confusing and scary, and the child may not be able to understand or put it into context.
“Their parents are the people who are in charge of them, who are handling life,” she says. “If they see their parents are not able to cope with this, then that becomes more fear on top of fear for them and more uncertainty.”
So if you know you need to have a huge cry or emotional outburst, take it somewhere away from your kids, she adds. “And then you can talk about feeling sad, feeling worried, feeling scared and feeling mad.”
Warning Signs to Look For
There are certain warning signs a child might be having difficulty coping with an event, including:
- Sleep problems
- Physical complaints
- Changes in behavior (social regression for young children, tobacco or substance abuse sometimes for teens)
- Emotional problems: undue sadness, depression, anxiety or fears
- Regression in young children
“Especially in younger children, watch for signs of regression, including bed-wetting and thumb-sucking,” she says. “For older kids, look for signs of being clingier and not wanting to be away from parents, and sadness that lasts more than a few days or a time frame that would be unusual for that child.”
Also typical is children engaging in play that mimics the incident, which can appear worrisome to parents.
“After 9-11, parents would call or come in really worried because their young kids were playing airplanes, flying and crashing them into buildings over and over for several weeks,” she says. “But what parents need to understand is that this is how children process their own emotions, their thoughts and the things that happen. And parents can engage in that play — it’s an opportunity to jump in and have a conversation.”
Times of tragedy are also opportunities for parents to talk with their children about safety and how to trust their instincts when they feel unsafe.
“These kinds of things really teach kids in general how to respond safely and keep themselves safe,” she says. “It’s helpful to teach your children to trust their own instincts if they get a bad feeling about a person or a situation, or if something doesn’t seem right to them. Teach them to find an adult and talk about their feelings.”
If your child needs additional resources, Renown Pediatric Behavioral Health is available by appointment by calling 775-982-3970.