10 Ways To Help Children Cope With Tragedy

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10 Ways To Help Children Cope With Tragedy
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Helping children cope with and process tragedy isn't easy. Like you, they're feeling shock, disbelief, and pain.

After all, their world just changed. And children's mental health is just as fragile as adults'.

Time slows down, thoughts speed up, and we instantly start trying to understand and process the how and why. 

This is how it is for us adults and also how it is for our kids.

Caught off-guard to handle what has happened, we often feel doubly unprepared to help our children process a tragedy, and they are the very people who might need it most.

RELATED: 10 Ways To Help Your Child Deal With Their Emotions & Feelings After The Death Of A Parent

If you're faced with a tragedy in your family, there are 10 ways to help your children cope.

1. Create space and time to talk.

Talking after a traumatic event is an important mitigator of trauma symptoms. Talking is one way to process and absorb emotional experience — organize it, if you will, for later.

How we understand an experience will determine how we store it in our memory and, importantly, how it will impact us in the future.

This is even more so for our children, whose brains are still developing and laying down templates for life.

Talking helps us process and cope. It is the basis of debriefing. You need it and so does your child.

So, be prepared to let your child talk, talk, and talk some more — as much as they need to

2. Introduce the topic and listen.  

Don't be afraid to bring up what happened, even share the news, and ask how they're doing with it. Listen carefully to what they say and aim to put yourself in their shoes.

Imagine how they're feeling, what they're thinking, and how their experience makes sense to them.

This is active listening, a powerful tool to access your child's experience.

3. Communicate empathy.

Before you do anything else — answer any question, comment on the situation, or say anything at all — let them know what you heard and what you understand of their experience. Then, pause and see if you got it.

A good sign that they feel understood is when it prompts them to say more about their experience. If you didn't quite get it, they will usually clarify.

Repeat this process until you get it right. You should notice them express themselves and you might have a variety of powerful emotions coming at you.

Don't panic and don't tell them not to feel that way. Just listen and validate their experience.

This is empathy and it's powerful. If you do nothing else, practice empathy.

Making space to see a situation through our child's eyes helps them feel heard, loved, and safe. They feel safe to process their experience, safe to feel their feelings, and safe to try to make sense of what has happened.

It sends the powerful message that their experience is important and that they can handle it. Empathy may not feel like enough, but it is.

4. Follow their lead.

Not only is empathy a powerful tool to help them process their experience, but it also gives us useful information that can help guide the rest of your conversation.

Notice the questions, concerns, and feelings that emerge, whether it's discussing the loss directly or indirectly through a topic or a play that is metaphorically similar.

As you tune into your child's experience, you will be better able to determine what they need, moment to moment.

Understand that processing takes time and can vary across conversations or even times of the day.

5. Answer questions and go slow.

Once your child knows you understand their experience, don't be afraid to answer their questions. Tell the truth, but keep your answers short and pause now and then.

The pause gives your child a chance to absorb the information in a bite-size chunk. It also allows you to see what they do with the information and where to go next.

When in doubt, continue to convey empathy.

RELATED: Why So Many More Kids Today Are Facing Depression And Mental Health Issues

6. Don't be surprised if they are scared. 

Anxiety is a normal reaction to loss and grieving, especially in uncertain times.

Let them know you understand how they are feeling and that it is normal ito feel scared while emphasizing that they are safe. 

Kids need to know they are safe and loved. Hug them, let them know your family is together, that they are loved, and that you are there for them.

7. It's OK to get stumped.

It's OK if you don't have answers, and it's OK to say you don't know. You don't have to have the answers to move ahead and this, too, sends another powerful message to your child: That they don't have to, either.

Focus on what you do know and model that it's OK not to know everything. Life is full of mysteries and unanswered questions.

If you have a spiritual practice, this could be a good place to practice this together.

Tragedies can be processed in spite of unanswered questions. It's how we view them, rather than the answers themselves, that delivers meaning.

8. Build a narrative of healing. 

As you talk and respond to your child's experience, allow your child to say whatever comes to mind, understanding that repetition is normal.

However, also keep in mind that you're ultimately helping your child — and yourself — to build a healing narrative.

Talking about a painful loss through the lens of a story — from start to finish — helps us process loss in a healthier way and avoids getting stuck in negative rumination.

So as you talk, look to put the pieces together and build a story of what happened, what is happening now, and what might happen in the future.

Building a story together helps your child make sense of their experience. This is part of processing.

9. Expect this to take time.

The more emotional a situation is, the more there is to process. Likewise, the more complicated a situation is, the more challenging it is to understand and process.

Tragedies are perhaps the hardest experience to make sense of for all of us, especially for our children. Tragedies can mean more time to talk or process as needed, not less.

10. Have some non-verbal options.

If your child isn't a big talker, make space to do an activity together so you can share space and time with them. Walking together or driving can be less-intense ways to bring up a sensitive topic.

Look to use the same strategies as you can, and convey empathy as soon as you have an opening.

Writing is also an effective way to express ourselves and has been shown to have a powerfully positive effect on emotional processing.

Most of all, hug your children, show them they are safe, and that they are loved. Your best is good enough and you will get through this, together.

RELATED: 9 Mental Health Apps That Can Help Kids & Teens With Anxiety & Depression

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Dr. Alicia Clark is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. For more help with managing stress and anxiety, check out her anxiety blog, download her free ebook, or sign up for her newsletter.

This article was originally published at aliciaclarkpsyd.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.