Incidents like yesterday’s shooting at Umpqua Community College put our resilience to the test. We will grieve because of it. We will each process the tragic incident in our own way. We continue to move on. Life goes on.
For children, it’s more complicated. Their personal resilience is not yet fully developed. They rely on their support system’s resilience to get them through disaster. For most, this means turning to parents and other significant adults for comfort and direction.
What should we say to a child when he or she asks about the horrific? Especially when it involves a shooting at a school, an environmental setting that is so prominent in their own lives. We cannot completely hide such incidents from them, given how they promote so much discussion and media coverage. What can we do to help keep a child from becoming an emotional casualty, after the fact?
Children’s Fears Following Disaster
The two circumstances children fear most following disaster are that it will happen again, and the possibility of becoming separated from parents or primary caregivers. Understandably so: we all identify with the fear of it happening again, and children cope by having support to guide and protect them.
When these fears have their say, children may temporarily behave as they did when younger, such as becoming clingy, tantrums, or returning to thumb sucking or bed wetting. Nightmares are common. Fear of being separated can result in school refusal, especially understandable when the specific disaster is a school shooting.
Helping Children Cope
Children need two primary reassurances. One is that their parents will always endeavor to keep them safe. Point out to them that when parents themselves are not with them, they arrange for others the child can to turn to, such as a teacher or sitter. These individuals will know how to find parents when needed. The child will not be abandoned.
The second reassurance is trickier. Sadly, these mass casualty disasters seem to be becoming the new normal. We cannot guarantee that such incidents will not happen again.
Children benefit from knowing that parents and teachers have plans in the event of disaster. Make sure they know what the family’s plan for disaster is, such as what to do if the house caught on fire. Include them in the planning process. This will help reveal their own specific fears, and creates opportunity to include strategy that addresses individual concerns. Help them develop a personal plan for what to do if they find themselves truly alone or in a dangerous situation, such as looking for Mr. Policeman or a mommy who has little children with her. Older children can be reminded of known adults they can call when parents are unreachable.
Schools have drills for various disasters. Explain that these practice sessions are the teachers’ way of making sure they will be safe if something should ever go wrong, and that parents come to the school and get their children if something really bad happens.
There are other important considerations to keep in mind to best strengthen a child’s developing resilience following disaster. For more, see “Talking with Kids About Disasters“, provided by WebMD.