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Talking to Children After a Tragedy: Resources for Educators and Parents

03/07/2018 - a female adult talks with a child

Recent natural disasters, school shootings, and other crises have heightened the need to be sensitive to the effect these events can have on children. Thankfully, any parent, teacher, or adult who works with children can be a possible source of healing when armed with the right tools. Following are some ways to tell if a child might be suffering or needing more help —and what you can do.

This article includes information from a presentation by Dr. David Schonfeld and the article “Parent Guidelines for Helping Children Impacted by Wildfires,” published by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN). Additional information can be found online at nctsnet.org.

Experience Varies from Child to Child

Even if a child wasn't directly affected by a disaster, she could still be impacted in many ways, including the stress it places on the adults in her life or images she's seen in the news.

There is no right or wrong timeline for how quickly a child will recover from a trauma. Some children will experience a period of time in which they perceive everyone else around them having returned to “normal”. It is important not to remove supports too soon, particularly for these children. Providing ongoing opportunities to tell their stories and seek support can help prevent long-term symptoms such as anxiety and depression.

Many factors affect how a child recovers from a tragedy, including the support and resources he receives at home and school, said Dr. David Schonfeld, a nationally renowned expert in school crisis and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at the University of Southern California. Here are some signs to look out for and ways to support a child.

Signs of Distress

All children grieve differently: Some may become aggressive or hyper, while others may withdraw. A child’s behavior can also change over time, in response to something that reminds him of the disaster or another stressful life event. That said, here are some common signs that a child could be struggling to adjust.

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Separation anxiety
  • Fear of going to school
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Withdrawal
  • Increased irritability or anxiety
  • Loss of academic performance
  • Regressive behaviors in young children (bedwetting, tantrums)
  • Depression, lack of interest in activities they usually enjoy
  • Substance abuse
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches or fatigue
  • No symptoms after experiencing a significant trauma

What You Can Do

A supportive response can help a child heal and even grow after a traumatic experience. Here are a few tips:

  • Be there: Perhaps the most important thing you can do is talk with—and listen to— your children. “Be present, observant, and let them know we are here for you. That can go a long way,” advises Dr. Schonfeld. Be sure to let them know it is OK to ask questions and share their feelings.
  • Be flexible with expectations: “When you have kids that are struggling and they feel they aren’t keeping up to expectations, that puts a lot of stress on them,” says Dr. Schonfeld. Patience, flexibility, and extra attention can all give a child the room he or she needs to heal. This can include gentle reminders or added help with chores or homework.
  • Be a role model: Children take cues for how to handle stressful situations from their parents, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Do your best to model calm behaviors and healthy self-care.
  • Take care of yourself: You may be familiar with the advice “put your own air mask on first.” You can’t be a good role model if you are struggling yourself. Go easy on yourself during this difficult time. Take time to make sure you are eating and sleeping well, getting exercise, and receiving proper medical care.
  • Seek professional help: If a child you care for has shown signs of distress for more than six weeks after the fires, consider consulting with a mental health professional for an evaluation.

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