Tips for talking to kids after a major tragedy

DENVER – Tragic events like the deadly mass shooting in Las Vegas can be terrifying and overwhelming, especially for children, who may be confused and will look to the adults in their lives to explain what’s going on.

Talking to children in an age-appropriate way can help them understand that they are safe and that their feelings are valid.

The National Association of School Psychologists has a number of tips for parents and teachers who need help talking to kids about violence.

Is my child ready to talk?

Children might not always understand what they’re feeling and they may not want to talk right away. It’s important to be patient but also watch for signs that a child might be in distress, such as changes in appetite, behavior and sleep patterns. Children who may have questions but don’t know how to bring them up might follow or hover around an adult as they move about the house.

Let the child’s questions guide how much information you give them and keep it age-appropriate: Elementary-aged children will need information presented in simpler ways than high school kids, for example.

Acknowledge the child’s feelings and let them know that however they’re feeling is OK after a tragedy. Talk about it, put those feelings in perspective and help the child express them in an appropriate way. Some kids might find writing, art or music to be good outlets for their feelings.

Keep a normal routine

A little bit of normalcy can go a long way. Help keep kids on the same routine for meals, sleep and exercise. Encourage them to keep up with their homework and other activities but be mindful if a child seems to be getting overwhelmed.

Limit media exposure

In the hours and days following a violent attack or major disaster, there will be a great deal of media coverage, not all of which will be appropriate for children. It’s important to be mindful of what’s on TV in common areas and the conversations that adults may be having about the news.

Discuss emergency/safety procedures

Explain to your child what procedures and protocols exist to keep them safe at school and that while schools are generally safe places, sometimes people do things to hurt others. Help your child identify an adult or two that they feel comfortable talking to if the child has concerns or doesn’t feel safe. Make sure they know to stay away from weapons and to tell an adult if they see someone with a gun.

It’s also important to explain the difference between possibility and probability. While there’s no way to guarantee a tragedy won’t take place, kids should understand that doesn’t necessarily mean something bad will happen to them.

Contact a professional if concerned

Children will react to tragedy differently. Those who have personally experienced some kind of trauma may be at higher risk of reacting strongly and might need more help working through things. If you’re concerned, seek the help of a trained mental health professional, such as a child psychologist.

For more tips, log on to nasponline.org.

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