Helping Your Child Cope with Terrorism and Death

National Child Traumatic Stress Network

National Child Traumatic Stress Network

I have been receiving very specific questions from friends and family regarding recent, past, and (likely) future events - both domestic and international. In particular, many of you are asking how to engage your children and students about difficult topics such as death, dying, trauma, and terrorism. In response, I wanted to post a few resources for talking with your children about traumatic events, especially those events related to terrorism and violence such as shootings, bombings, etc. It is important to note, however, that what a child encounters as traumatic is extremely subjective to him or her and you should always allow the child to lead. I say this because often times something that is not scary or threatening to you can be interpreted as such by a young, developing child and so we should be careful to listen to a child's unique distress signals. Most of these resources come from The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which is an absolutely wonderful website that offers resources to not only help you understand traumatic reactions in children but also to help you guide your family in the journey of coping.

Often, when a child encounters death, even mass casualties, they adjust well - especially when they have the loving support of a caregiver. However, Childhood Traumatic Reactions and Grief are very real threats that deserve to be treated with care and respect. So before we get into specific resources and topics such as shootings and bombings, let me offer a few general guidelines about talking to your child about death and then a few questions you can ask yourself to determine whether your child's reaction might need professional assistance. (The following sections are both from NCTSN and would be considered professional standards by most psychologists).

Talking to Your Children about Death:

  • Be truthful with your child. Keep in mind that many difficult truths need to be sensitively worded for children.
  • Give short, simple, honest, and age-appropriate answers to questions. Don't overwhelm them with too much information.
  • Listen carefully to their feelings without judgement (there are no 'wrong' feelings)
  • Be ready to discuss the same things or answer the same questions over again. Many children need even very concrete information to be repeated several times and may be only able to take-in information intermittently.
  • Do not be afraid to say that you don't know the answer to a question
  • Children may have beliefs or ideas that are difficult to know unless you ask them. So ask. This includes "magical thinking" when a child thinks that they are somehow responsible for the event.
  • Let your child know that he or she can come to talk to you anytime
  • Make sure the child is not exposed to media that is violent, confusing, repetitive, or frightening. It is MUCH better for you to receive the news privately or with a parenting partner, and then relay what you have learned to your child as you see fit.

Questions to help you determine the nature/severity of your child's reactions:*

  • Does your child have nightmares or problems sleeping?
  • Does your child keep playing out, drawing, or dreaming about what happened?
  • Does your child have more physical complaints?
  • Is your child having difficulty in school?
  • Is your child having trouble concentrating when reading or even when doing fun activities like video games? (This may manifest as sudden disinterest in these activities or angry frustration)
  • Is your child jumpy or easily startled?
  • Is your child more withdrawn and less joyful or not doing activities he or she liked to do?
  • Does your child have excessive worry about something else bad happening or worry about being away from you?
  • Does your child talk about being responsible for the death or event?
  • Is your child more angry or irritable?

*If your child is experiencing some or all of these symptoms for a few months or if they are severe, please check with a professional. If you determine that your child is having a  traumatic reaction, let him or her know that you recognize their feelings and realize that they are struggling. Here is a great little illustrated online book (Ready to Remember) that you can read together and talk about that may help to validate your child's feelings.

Specific Links and Resources:

What follows are easy to use PDF pamphlet and printouts that will help guide you in talking to your children about any number of specific topics. Please, please, please engage these resources liberally knowing that they have been compiled by respected psychologists and committees of respected experts in the area of child trauma and traumatic reaction.

Talking to Children about Bombings

Parent Guidelines for Helping Youth after Bombings

Parent Tips for Helping PreSchool-Age Children after Disasters

Parent Tips for Helping School-Age Children after Disasters

After Crisis: Helping Young Children Heal

Restoring a Sense of Safety in the Aftermath of a Mass Shooting

Talking to Children about a Shooting

Psychological Impact of a Recent Shooting

grief candles

Grief Rituals:

Finally, for all my Engaging Mystery peoples, I wanted to suggest a few family rituals that can help your children engage the symbolic and abstract nature of death. It is important to offer your children concrete and tangible activities, objects, and even conversations that can help them engage the mystery of death, dying, and trauma when such things have become relevant to their day-to-day lives.

Light candles at home or in a public place to remember the children and adults who died.

Furthermore, the flame is a wonderful teaching tool to help your child understand what has happened in death. For instance, take an unlit candle. Explore with your child the purpose of the candle. What does the candle do? What if a candle won't light? It is just wax and not a candle then! Help them along in conversation then take them to a dark place like a bathroom and light the candle. Have your child tell you what the candle did when you lit it. What happened to the room? Can they see better? Do they feel safer? From here you may want to explore with your child how the candle is like the body - this is especially useful when a child may have recently encountered a corpse (perhaps during an open casket ceremony or during a traumatic event) - and the flame is like the person's spirit or soul. Be creative and use words that your child can understand. I can imagine myself saying something like, "See how the candle is nothing but wax unless you can light it. That is kind of how the body is. The body is just a carrier for something else, something special - our soul! And when a person dies it is like God just blew out the flame and all that is left is that wax stick. The problem with only having wax with no flame is that we were made to light up, to shine bright like a candle. When a person dies, God takes their flame away with Him to heaven...." or something like this. Again be creative.

Create a ceremony for home that is consistent with your tradition.

If your child is familiar with funerals then you may want to keep is consistent with what they know. I think it is a great idea to have your child create their own ceremony. They may want or need your help. This is a great opportunity to follow their lead while helping them grieve and explore their understanding of death. It can also be an empowering and validating experience for the grieving or confused child.

Say prayers at home or go to your place of worship.

I like the idea of doing both. One, because saying prayers at home gives them a nice coping resource that they feel they can do anytime when they feel sad. Two, because taking them to a place of worship to say a prayer  can make bring import and ceremony to their experience.

Write notes or make cards for the surviving family members.

This is a wonderful way for children to express their grief using their creative gifts. It is also an opportunity for you see how your child consoles someone that they perceive to be very sad or even feeling the same way they are feeling. Pay attention, this is likely how your child would like to be consoled or may indicate what you are currently doing that they respond well to. Because a child often can't or doesn't express their feelings directly this may be a great window for you to peep into their experience using play and creativity. I also like this idea because it teaches children an important lesson in reaching out to others and helping love people when they need it.

Share with each other feelings and memories of those who are gone.

Yes, it is important for your child to express memories, but never under estimate how important it is for you child to bear witness to your experience as well. There is no better way to help a child learn to mourn than by modeling your own authentic grief - all the time being careful to explain and verbalize the feelings that motivate your actions.

Good luck translating these difficult topics to something a child can interact with and understand. I pray that you are blessed and that your family can find a way to grow closer during tragedy.

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God Romans 8:28

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. Genesis 50:20