CINCINNATI—After the traumatic school shooting in Newtown, Conn., many parents and caregivers have sought advice on how to talk to their children about such tragedies. They should also know how to watch children for signs of lingering fear or anxiety in the coming weeks.
James Clark, PhD, a licensed clinical social worker and director of the UC School of Social Work within the College of Allied Health Sciences, says that while children who go through terrible events are resilient, it’s not unusual for them to need parental support and time to process stressful events.
"In our current media environment, children can see news online and on television just as quickly as adults can,” says Clark. "The vivid nature of these media can affect even children who live far away. Those who have had previous exposure to violence may find that seeing the news from Newtown can be especially distressing.”
Clark says parents or caregivers should first work out their own thoughts and feelings about the event, and not use conversations with children as a way to comfort themselves. After that, parents can speak to their children about the event using language and ideas that are at their child’s developmental level.
"Children need to hear that they are safe in order to feel that they are safe,” he says. "Younger children should know that this event happened far away and they don’t need to be scared of it. They should also be able to ask the adult any questions that they have. It is best to be honest, reassuring and brief.”
In the days and weeks following stressful events, parents should keep an eye on their child for signs of stress or lingering anxiety.
"Younger kids generally talk to you through notable changes in their behaviors—through their play, what they eat, how they sleep,” he says.
Vulnerable kids may report nightmares or want to sleep in the same bed as their parents. They may also regress in developmental milestones, for example, when toilet-trained kids resume wetting the bed.
Clark says research has shown that children who have directly experienced or witnessed violence or traumatic events are more likely to be shaken or stressed by news of violent events in distant places. Even these children will probably recover in a few days with adult support, but if they do not, seeking professional consultation can be helpful.
"The most effective adults are those who are calm, thoughtful and attuned to the child’s ways of looking at the world,” he says. "This is because most children handle stress by looking to the adults they trust most for signs that they are safe and that life makes sense. While brief conversations help, maintaining comforting and predictable family routines is a powerful way to communicate safety.”