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Helping Kids Cope After Tragedy

When we turn on the TV or check social media, we are often bombarded with images and messages reflective of a very stressful time in our world. As parents, we may wonder how we can possibly keep our children physically safe AND emotionally healthy in this unpredictable environment.

Children look to their parents and caregivers for clues about their own safety when they feel stress, and parents can make a big difference for children through simple actions at home and in their community. Follow these steps to help your child feel secure at home and develop a foundation of safety for all the children in your care.

Maintain routines.

Children love predictability. It helps them feel safe. As long summer days loom in front of us, it is easy to be less committed to routines. There is no need to be too rigid about the exact timing of certain daily activities, but creating a rhythm to the day is helpful. Something as simple as going to the pool before lunch and having some downtime after lunch creates a sense of sameness and supports a child’s ability to predict the day’s events. Having un-plugged times for children of all ages is important. For children old enough to be on social media, it is important to monitor what they are seeing and provide breaks from stressful scenarios as they play out immediately after an event and in the days to follow.

Create traditions.

Family traditions like Fourth of July picnics, visits from grandma and grandpa, holding an annual neighborhood baseball game or setting up a lemonade stand help children feel connected to their roots. Traditions are all about connection, and they give children a sense of unshakable belonging.

If you or your children are a part of a memorial service at your church or a community vigil, talk to them about their experience. We can model how to honor the deceased and provide comfort to our neighbors who are grieving. When children are allowed to show their emotions and talk about their thoughts and feelings, they build coping skills and learn compassion. Many of our traditions include playing homage to family members and friends who are no longer with us, but are forever a part of our heritage.

Provide opportunities to contribute.

Children develop confidence and a sense of usefulness when they contribute to the home, neighborhood, or larger community. There are a variety of simple ways your child can achieve these positive feelings. Doing chores, such as watering flowers, feeding pets, or making beds, can become part of their daily routine. They can help an elderly neighbor bring in groceries or pick up trash in the park. Especially when children are old enough to understand some of the distressing events, their well-being and coping can be tied into “doing” something to make a difference. For instance, remembering to recycle might give a child a sense of actively helping to preserve the planet. Sending a note of gratitude to a first responder helps a child remember there are adults in charge and ready to keep them safe.

Create a well-balanced lifestyle.

In order to do well in distressing times, it is important to build stamina by taking good physical care of our families and ourselves. Eating healthy meals, limiting screen time, and getting plenty of sleep and exercise are all ways to build up our immunity to stress.

After hearing about distressing events, take time to re-energize and help your child organize their thoughts and feelings about what has happened. Children can cope with distress when we provide a listening ear and a positive outlook. We never want to minimize or dismiss our children’s feelings. However, if they are sad or worried or angry, we want our children to understand that they are safe and they are capable of handling life’s challenges. Overall, they know that they can cope because they have you in their corner, cheering them on and providing a place of comfort when needed.

I read a story about the co-founders of the company Life is Good. The two brothers created a 100 million dollar business from a simple routine that was a part of their childhood. Their home life was not easy, but their mother asked each of her six children every evening at dinner to name something good that happened to them that day. Her optimistic spirit became their inspiration.

We can all hope that our children create a multimillion-dollar business with us as their inspiration! In the meantime, we can create a secure homefront and a solid foundation for them to practice resilience despite life’s challenges.  

As we work together to heal from the recent mass shooting in Virginia Beach, please remember to seek support from friends, family and professionals at this difficult time. We recommend the following resources to help parents and educators talk with children and teens after a mass shooting. In addition, our mental health team will be available for families directly affected by this tragedy. Please call (757) 668-7525. 

Resources for Parents

Restoring a Sense of Safety in the Aftermath of a Mass Shooting

Helping Youth after the Recent Shooting

Talking to Children about the Shooting

5 Tips for Talking to Children about Mass Shootings

Helping your Children Manage Distress in the Aftermath of a Shooting

Resources for Educators

Helping Youth after Community Trauma: Tips for Educators

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About Michele Tryon, CCLS

About Michele  Tryon, CCLS Michele Tryon, CHKD community outreach coordinator and parent educator has worked with children and families for 30 years, providing services in the hospital, home, school and community setting. Michele is a Certified Child Life Specialist, a Certified Positive Discipline™ parent educator, a nationally recognized trainer/consultant for Nurturing Parenting Programs™ and co-author of The Nurturing Program for Parents and Their Children with Special Needs and Health Challenges©.

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