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Tips to help children cope with tragedy, loss
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- One of the most difficult tasks a parent or provider will face is guiding children through the grief and instability brought on by tragedy.
Natural disasters, terrorism, mass shootings, deaths of loved ones, or acts of domestic or physical violence are traumatic for everyone. When faced with these events, children and adults alike experience feelings of fear, helplessness and anxiety. However, children have very little, if any, experience in properly dealing with those feelings.
Child development experts with the Mississippi State University Extension Service’s Early Years Network offer a few strategies to help children cope. These tips can relieve some of the pressure from both children and adults when facing tragedy.
Network Director Louise Davis said her primary piece of advice is to be aware of children’s feelings. All children process events in different ways, so adults must be alert to each child’s emotions.
“It is important to listen to your child carefully to gauge what information he or she is hearing and understanding and to understand how he or she feels about the situation,” Davis said. “Adults can take cues from the child’s behavior about when it is time to talk and when it is time to listen or simply be there.”
Changes in a child’s behavior are important indicators of how he or she is coping in stressful situations, she added.
“It is also important for the adult to stay aware of how he or she is acting around the child,” Davis said. “Children will take many of their emotional cues from the adults around them.”
Davis said parents and other adults must be honest and talk with children openly about the tragedy. Adults should focus on the basics and avoid unnecessary details.
“It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know,’ when talking with children about difficult or hard to understand events,” Davis said. “Often, children see through false assurances, and a simple, ‘You’re OK now, and I’ll always try to protect you,’ from an adult goes a long way to ease anxiety.”
Adults should be as normal as possible when talking about tragic events, Davis said. Maintaining structure and routine will give children a sense of normalcy and security.
It is also important for adults to be encouraging and reassuring, she added. One approach is to encourage children to talk or express their feelings through play or drawing.
It is also encouraging to children when adults find ways to get involved in the solution to the problem, Davis said. Volunteering with a local relief effort in times of natural disaster is a good way to show children they can be part of the solution and give them a sense of control.
“Also, reassure as much as possible. Talking about death is not easy, but it is a part of life, and it is important children know tragedies are the uncommon and not the everyday,” Davis said.
It is essential that adults deliver messages that are appropriate for children, she added. When communicating with children, it is always necessary to keep their developmental level in mind.
“Preschool children might become clingy, while adolescents may deny the situation or complain of physical ailments to divert attention from the real issue,” said Lydia Bethay, associate director of the Early Years Network. “Young children may struggle to understand the abstract thoughts of what is going on, so adults can focus on providing simple, consistent explanations and reassurances.”
Bethay said adults need to know how much and what kind of information children require to process tragedies at different ages.
“Not everything older children need to know is necessarily good for preschool children to hear,” Bethay said. “The ultimate goal is to give our children healthy coping skills and build their confidence to overcome adversity.”
Parents should also be aware of the information children absorb from television news programs, online outlets, social media and overheard discussions between adults, Bethay said. Adults should moderate exposure to these information sources as needed.
The Early Years Network is a program housed within the MSU Extension Service and funded by the Mississippi Department of Human Services Division of Early Childhood Care and Development to provide early care and education programs and materials for teachers, directors, children and families to improve the well-being of Mississippi’s children. For more parenting tips, visit the Early Years Network Facebook page or http://earlyyearsnetwork.msucares.com.