“Earthquake destroys city; children left orphaned,” “Children shot while in class,” “Child is lone survivor of plane crash that leaves family dead.” As much as we would like to protect our children from the tragedies of the world, within moments of an event, information is universally available on television, the internet or social media, sometimes for hours or days on end. Children inevitably see or hear this, along with all of the accompanying commentary, analysis and sometimes graphic details. For parents, two questions spring to mind: Will this exposure harm my child, and what can I do to help my child?
Learning of a tragedy creates momentary shock or anxiety in most people, and children are no exception. But, like most adults, many children have the ability to adapt to news about the inevitable tragedies that occur in their worlds and won’t be adversely affected beyond the level that most of us are impacted. There are some things that parents, teachers and other caring adults can do to capitalize on a child’s resilience in the face of an unexpected tragedy.
▪ First, ask what the child has heard, what that means and how it makes him or her feel. We should not assume that the child has paid attention to the tragedy, that the information he or she has heard is accurate or that the information is perceived as stressful.
▪ Second, give the child a chance to ask questions about the tragedy, and then provide developmentally appropriate and non-emotional replies that he or she can understand.
▪ Third, if the child indicates that he or she is frightened by the tragedy, acknowledge that most people feel worried when things like this happen, and it is OK to have those feelings.
▪ Fourth, provide simple assurance that these kinds of tragedies are rare and are the kinds of things for which the adults in their lives will be responsible.
▪ Fifth, reduce the amount of exposure your child has to the media. Constant exposure to a tragedy will often increase otherwise manageable stress. For most kids, these five steps will be effective in addressing the concerns they will have.
Some tragedies are unanticipated, but some can be predicted. Living in South Florida, we annually face the potential of increased media coverage of a hurricane, sometimes even when the threat is low. Engaging children in preparations well before a hurricane becomes a reality can have major benefits in the run-up to a storm, during the storm and following the storm. Participating in planning gives children a concrete understanding that things are being done, provides reassurance that things can be done and helps them feel important as part of the solution.
There are some children who will have a more intense response to a tragedy. They will express this anxiety by crying or verbally stating their concerns, but most are likely to show signs of stress that include withdrawal, reduced appetite or difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. In these cases, giving children a chance to talk directly, draw pictures or tell stories may be very helpful. In some cases, consulting with a child mental health professional or pediatrician might be worthwhile.
One other group of children may require special attention. Children with developmental disabilities may not have the ability to fully understand the context of events because of limited intellectual function, but may nonetheless be significantly affected by the emotional tone related to the event. If these children also have difficulty with verbal communication, their ability to express their concerns and obtain reassurance may be challenged.
At the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, we are working to find better ways to help parents and teachers communicate with children with disabilities by using assistive technologies like apps on tablets for both education and emotional support. Planning by parents and teachers about how to meet the varied needs of this group of children is needed well before any tragic event occurs.
Tragedies happen and the media will cover them, now more than any time in human history. While we cannot isolate children from these events and news about them, we can trust that taking some simple steps to address their concerns, engage them and provide meaningful reassurance will be enough to let them move forward without harm. For those for whom that isn’t enough, help is available.
Daniel Armstrong, Ph.D., is professor of pediatrics and psychology and Director of the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.