Tragedy has come again.
Whether you are reading this in response to an intentional act, an accident, or some natural disaster, your response is likely the same.
You feel sad and afraid. Perhaps you lost sleep. Maybe you had nightmares, if you slept at all. You are thinking about the baseball game you’re supposed to go to or the train you’re supposed to ride. You are finding it hard to concentrate on anything but the news.
It’s natural to experience this in the wake of a tragedy. These responses remind us what is truly important and bring us together. If we’re healthy, there’s a period of grief and tumult, then we move on.
Kids exposed to things like this feel the same things but process things differently. They rely on adults to take some of the burden: to filter information and to model appropriate coping.
To make this difficult task easier, try these four simple things:
1 Deal with your own feelings.
Get a grip on your emotions. The sadness, fear, and anger you feel are valid, but there are healthy and unhealthy ways to express them. Kids will take their cues on how to cope with upset from you. When you talk about your feelings, show them how you want them to behave when they have bad feelings.
2 Let them know that something has happened and that you are there to talk.
Do not provide details, just let them know they might hear about something bad happening. If they’ve already heard, ask them what they think they know. Clear up misconceptions as appropriate. Ask them how they feel. Talk about your feelings and model the responses you want from them.
3 Let them know that adults are here to protect them.
As the footage rolls on continuous loop and people post on social media, there will be all kinds of talk about strategy and politics and values. While adults can and must tackle those issues, kids are not ready. Limit their (and your) exposure to these things. Consistently show them that you and other adults will do everything possible to keep them safe.
4 Listen and ask questions.
Much of the time, listening and asking the right questions is the best route to healthy coping. Getting them to process the events for themselves will help them cope through their own tragedies. Encourage them to ask you questions, too, and don’t be afraid of saying. I’m not sure, but we’ll figure it out. This is also a good plan when you are finding it difficult to manage your own response to the event.
Most people – even those directly involved – will come through this without lasting problems. We will move past our fear and sadness and live long and healthy lives.
If the negative feelings and thoughts go on longer than expected, seek help from someone trained in therapy for trauma.
Shane G. Owens, Ph.D., ABPP is an authority on college mental health practice and policy, including college readiness and behavioral risk management. As a college administrator and in private practice, he works primarily with adolescents and emerging adults. He is a board-certified behavioral and cognitive psychologist.
Follow Dr. Owens on Twitter: @drshaneowens
For more helpful information, visit: drshaneowens.com