Coping With Tragedy

In the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut many children will be experiencing confusion, fear, and sadness.  My heart goes out to all those families impacted by the tragedy and all children who are experiencing grief or fear after such a shocking and terrible event.  Many parents, teachers, and other adults are wondering how to address the tragedy with children.  Through talk, art, and other interventions, parents and helping professionals can be a supportive resource to help children to feel safe and move on after a tragedy or traumatic event.  As well, much of the information below can be useful in any stressful situation for a child.

Talking to children about a tragedy or stressful event:

 Make time to talk with the child and provide an age-appropriate explanation.  Whether the stressful situation is an act of violence, a natural disaster, a family loss, or a parent's serious illness, it is important for children to be given some kind of explanation.  When children do not have necessary information, they may invent stories to fill in the holes, sometimes leading to even greater fear and confusion.  It is important to keep in mind that the information that a child is given should be tailored to their age.  Young children do not need lots of details that may end up being upsetting.  Parents can make the first move to open a discussion and should not assume that their child is unaware of an event or not bothered by it just because the child has not mentioned it.

Provide reassurance.  Children personalize events much more than adults and often do not have an accurate understanding of the level of threat of an event.  For events like a school shooting or natural disaster, explain to the child that such events are rare and unlikely to occur to them.  Tell the child that they are safe.  Children will often need to hear several times that they will be safe, so parents should not become frustrated if they have to keep repeating the reassurances.  Parents may need to pay extra attention to providing comfort through soothing actions like hugs and calming bedtime routines.  Adults should also keep in mind that although they should be authentic in their feelings, remaining calm and not showing panic is one of the biggest ways to provide reassurance to the child.

Limit your child's exposure to the tragedy.  Following a significant disaster or tragedy, do not allow your child to have much exposure to news coverage.  While older teenagers may be able to handle this, young children are not able to understand and process what they are hearing and seeing and will likely become more frightened.  For a more personal stressful event, like family loss or divorce, parents should be sure that children are not overhearing adult conversations that may be confusing and frightening.

Allow for questions and sharing feelings.  Let the child know that they can ask any questions they want and share any feelings they are having.  Children may need to be given permission to do so because they may avoid asking questions or expressing feelings in order to not "burden" their parents.  Be sure to validate and reflect the child's emotions (e.g., "I know that it can be really scary..." or "I hear you saying that you are really angry...") before offering reassurance.  Sometimes in trying to help children feel better, adults may inadvertently tell then that they "shouldn't" feel sad, angry, or scared.

Expressive arts and somatic activities for stressful events:

Spontaneous or free drawings about the event:  Art can be a valuable outlet to help children with expressing their feelings and processing difficult events.  At home and in therapy, many children will spontaneously draw pictures about traumatic events if they are provided with art materials and the opportunity.  Drawing about the event can help the child to begin to make sense of what happened, feel some sense of control around the tragedy, and express their emotions.  Helping adults can then use these drawings as the starting place for a conversation, inviting the child to share about the drawing, their thoughts, and their feelings.  Some children will use art and drawing to play out fantasies of what they wish could have happened, showing themselves stopping or overcoming the event.  For example, after Hurricane Katrina I saw some drawings by children in southern California that showed them surfing on the flood waters.  Such drawings should not be dismissed ("That didn't happen..."), but instead discussed in the light of what the child wishes could have happened.  Please note that it would not be appropriate to suggest that all children draw about a tragedy; however, in the context of a safe therapeutic relationship, drawing about the event could be a helpful intervention for a child.

Drawings about safety:  When children are frightened or anxious, it can be helpful for them to draw pictures about the places and people that help them to feel safe.  Some possible prompts are: "Draw a picture about a place that you feel safe" or "Draw a picture of the people that keep you safe and love you."  I will often help children who have had trauma or stressful events to create a "Circle of Safety" drawing in which they are in the middle and everyone who keeps them safe is drawn in a circle around them.  For some children, it may be helpful to have these drawings placed somewhere at home as positive reminders.

Soothing sensory activities, art, and relaxation techniques:  Tragedy and fear do not only impact us on an emotional and intellectual level; we also experiences these emotions in our bodies.  Children will benefit from somatic interventions that help to calm the tension and stress that they feel in their bodies.  Aromatherapy with lavender or chamomile can help increase the feeling of calm.  Play dough or stress balls can help the child to release anxious energy (try aromatherapy play dough for an extra soothing effect).  Other helpful outlets for stress include large scale scribble drawings or sand play.  Teach children deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation to help them to calm anxiety and fear in their bodies.

Children can be very resilient and will often be able to recover from stressful events with the help of supportive adults like parents and teachers.  However, if you are a parent and your child has directly  experienced a traumatic event, please consider seeking professional guidance from a psychotherapist or counselor.

Carolyn Mehlomakulu, LMFT, ATR is a psychotherapist in Austin, Texas who works with children, adolescents, and families.  For more information about individual therapy, child counseling, family therapy, and art therapy services, please visit

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