Helping Children and Families Cope

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Whether it's a national tragedy or violence in the news, it is important to remember that children process information differently than adults. As a pediatric healthcare provider, Children’s National has resources to help guide and support families during times of tragedy.

What Parents Can Expect from their Children

Children process and respond to traumatic events differently, and parents know their children best. Below are some common reactions, based on age.

Preschoolers (age 2-6)

Uncontrollable cryingSensitivity to loud noises
Running aimlesslyConfusion and irritability
Excessive clinging and fear of being aloneEating problems
Regressive behavior 

School-age children (age 7-12)

Non-specific physical complaints (aches/pains)Irritability
Appetite changesWhining or clinging
Sleep changesAggression and questioning authority
SadnessSchool avoidance
Withdrawal from peersRegressive behavior

Teenagers (age 13-18)

Non-specific physical complaints (aches/pains)Excessive fears
Appetite changesAgitation and apathy
Sleep changesRisk-taking behaviors
SadnessPoor concentration
Withdrawal from peersDisenchantment (“what’s the point?”)
Irritability and acting out
Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness

What Parents Can Do

Be Supportive
  • Children will benefit greatly from support and caring expressed by the adults in their lives. Create an environment in your home or classroom that encourages respect for each other’s feelings and fears, and allows for a supportive, healing environment.
Be Available
  • Let children know that you are available to talk with them.
  • Let children ask questions.
  • It is ok if you do not have answers to all the questions. It also is ok to let your child know that you do not have the answer but that you will try and find out.
Be Caring
  • Let children know about the support being provided to students, friends, and families of the victims.
  • Be aware of children who may have experienced a previous trauma and may be more vulnerable to experiencing prolonged or intense reactions and will need extra support.
Be Reassuring
  • Acknowledge the frightening parts of the event.
  • Explain what happened in words that children understand. Explanations should be appropriate to the child’s age, developmental stage, and language skills.
  • Reassure children that they are loved and will be taken care of.
  • Children who have concerns about siblings who are living on a college campus or have concerns about safety at their own school should be reassured and their concerns validated.
Be Thoughtful
  • Be aware of how you talk about the event and cope with the tragedy.
  • Children learn about how to react to traumatic situations by watching and listening to parents, peers, and the media.
  • Reduce or eliminate your child’s exposure to television images and news coverage of the shooting. The frightening images and repetition of the scenes can be disturbing for children. If they do see coverage, be sure to talk with them about what they saw and what they understood about the coverage. Make sure to correct any misunderstanding or misinterpretations.
  • Maintain your child’s routine as best as possible.
Be Creative
  • For children who are too young to talk or do not feel comfortable talking about their feelings, expressive techniques such as play, art and music can provide additional ways for children to express their feelings and let you know what may be troubling them.
Resources for Families  

We have several resources specific to this event, including:

Resources for Educators and School

Additional Support

We encourage families to use and share our resources as a guide during a difficult time. If you believe your child is having more difficulty than normal, please consult your pediatrician or a trusted counselor for additional support.


Topics: Coping
Authors: Cydney Cappello

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