ChrisstyJo Favale (C), NCC, LMFT Halifax Health – Hospice Bereavement Counselor
Melanie Smith (M), PhD, LMHC, Halifax Health – Child and Behavioral Services Program Therapy Supervisor
1. How do you talk to your child about a mass casualty event?
C: To begin, caregivers can start by asking what the child has already heard. Most children will have heard something either at school, home, or on social media. After inquiring about what they’ve heard, ask what questions they have. Research shows that an age-appropriate level of transparency with children and adolescents is necessary in times of stress, change, and uncertainty. In fact, not talking about something can actually make kids worry more! These conversations provide children with an opportunity to ask questions which lessen anxiety. When providing the information, take into consideration the child’s age, development, and maturity, and remember it is best to share basic information with children, not graphic details, or unnecessary details about tragic circumstances. Also, do not be afraid to admit that you cannot answer all of their questions. Furthermore, in addition to the tragic things they observe, help children identify good things, such as heroic actions, families who unite and share support, and the assistance offered by people throughout the community.
M: It is important to be open and honest with your child when talking about a mass casualty event. Ask them what they are thinking and feeling as each child may view the event differently. It also can be a different conversation depending upon the age of the child. When speaking to a school age child, you can ask how they are feeling based upon what they are seeing on television or talking about in school. For teens who are more susceptible to social media and talking amongst their peers, they may have deeper questions. And it is ok as a parent if you don’t have all the answers. It is important to be genuine and honest and let them know they are in this together. Overall, support your child by creating a safe place for them to ask questions.
2. How do you instill a sense of safety into a child’s everyday routine?
C: Reassurance is pivotal to helping children through a traumatic time. Actions such as cuddling, and verbal support, i.e. “I am here for you” are very impactful. It is also important for children to understand that there are no bad emotions and that a wide range of reactions is normal. Encourage children to express their feelings to adults (including teachers and caregivers) who can help them understand their sometimes strong and difficult emotions. Children can express emotions through conversation, writing, or artwork. Additionally, sticking to a schedule can also enhance a child’s sense of safety. Routines that are consistent and structured are calming during times of stress, as they provide a sense of control, predictability and well-being. Like all humans, when children are stressed, their bodies respond by activating their stress response systems. To help children manage these reactions, it is important to both validate their feelings and encourage them to engage in activities that help them self-regulate. Activities such as deep breathing, mindfulness, and gratitude exercises evoke calmness.
M: It is important to keep a routine for your child and family. Limit watching the television and social medial over and over where your child can see it. That will help keep them feel safe if they know their parent is keeping their routine and not engaging in too much publicity towards the event. Also, express to your child “I would not send you to school if I did not feel you were safe”. If as a parent, you are struggling yourself with anxiety and worry, talk to your support network and/or engage in therapy for yourself.
3. What are some local resources parents can access for children who are experiencing grief as a result of a traumatic event?
C: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a Disaster Distress Helpline, which provides immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. The helpline is free, multilingual, confidential, and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can call or text the helpline at 800-985-5990 or visit the Disaster Distress Helpline website. Additionally, the website for the National Child Traumatic Stress Network has a wealth of information on children’s trauma and treatment, including a section on School Shooting Resources https://www.nctsn.org/
M: There are numerous resources on line to help parents discuss causality events with their children. The American School Counselor Association website has gathered a list of resources and tips to help talk to children after a school shooting. The National Education Association website has a “School Crisis Guide.” Lastly, the American Psychological Association website has several resources as well including “Helping your child manage distress in the aftermath of a shooting”.
4. What are some signs that a parent should be looking for in a child struggling with mental health issues as a result of witnessing a traumatic event?
C: There are many types of stress responses children have to witnessing a traumatic event. Below are a few of the most common. Sleep problems: Watch for trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, difficulty waking, nightmares or other sleep disturbances. Physical complaints: Children may complain of feeling tired, having a headache or generally feeling unwell. You may notice your child eating too much or less than usual. Changes in behavior: Look for signs of regressive behavior, including social regression, acting more immature or becoming less patient and more demanding. A child who once separated easily from their parents may become clingy. Teens may begin or change current patterns of tobacco, alcohol or substance use. Emotional problems: Children may experience undue sadness, depression, anxiety or fears.
M: Depending upon the age of the child, they may show signs of struggling with the event differently. Smaller children may become more clingy and whiny. School age children may show their struggle thru play by reenacting events they see on television. A teenager may either disengage at home, or become more addicted to social media especially in regards to watching news about the event over and over. If a child does not want to go outside or school due to extreme anxiety would also be something to look for.
5. What can parents do to better prepare themselves for having these conversations with their children?
C: Having difficult conversations with children is both physically and emotionally draining. Caregivers also need support to address their own emotions and fears related to the traumatic event. Reach out to family, friends, and community members for emotional support.
M: Parents can do their own research on how to talk to their children about causality events before having the hard conversations. In the end, it is important to let your children know they are safe to come to you to ask questions. Share your own feelings with your children as well and understand it is ok to not have all the answers.