Helping Children When Disaster and Violence Occur

In light of the recent Colorado shootings, we thought it would be helpful to provide parents with some useful guidelines on how to talk with their children when public tragedies such as this occur.

Thank you to Dr. Gerard Costa, PhD, at Montclair State University’s College of Education and Human Services, Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health, for providing us with these guidelines.

  • Ask children what they know and have heard. Correct the accounts and give permission for many different feelings: scared, angry, worried, etc. Monitor your own emotion and tone of voice.
  • It is okay, even important for children to know that the adults in their lives have the same feelings when bad things happen: sadness, fear, worry, anger. Let children know you feel these feelings and that you are there for them. It is important however, that you remain in control. If your own reaction is difficult to manage, enlist another adult to help you with the children.
  • Limit repeated exposure to images and reports of the events.
  • Follow the child’s lead, talk about what happened, be reassuring about the ways that you, the adults, will take care of them. Turn the TV off, read a book, interact in play, talk. Typical and normal routines are comforting and reassuring to children.
  • At each developmental period, the availability and empathic response of a caring, familiar, adult begins the process of remediation.
  • Infants require comfort, familiar attachment figures, holding, protection, restoration of routines.
  • As language and imagination grow, children need simple words, repeated reassurances, acceptance of time-limited regression, constant monitoring and love.
  • When children do see images or reports of tragedies, Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) suggests that we help them “look for all the people who are helping.” Couple the sad tragedy with the comforting presence of others who are helping and taking care of others.
  • While we as adults may feel unsure of the possibility of future tragedies, uncertainty is the province of adulthood. We must always let children know that we will take care of them and protect them.
  • Practice conversations with other adults. Use simple language. Avoid imposing meanings or interpretations on children. Tell a child what they need to know – not all that you know.
  • In explaining acts of intentional interpersonal violence, like acts of terrorism, say something like, “Some people did some bad things and other people were hurt. But you are safe here and we will protect you.” Be careful not to make generalizations about groups of people.
  • If the status of a child’s parent or relative is unknown, reassure the child that you will stay with him/her and that you will be sure to contact someone they know who can come to be with them.
  • If a child’s parent or relative is missing and may have died, let the child know that you will be sure that someone from their family or another close person comes to take care of them. Let them know that you care for them, hold and hug them if they will let you, and tell them that you are sad with them.
  • Anniversaries may reactivate original feelings, losses and worries. While this is true for young children (under age 7), they are more influenced by the responses of the adults in their lives and the images/reports they are exposed to.
  • Recognize that there are some feelings we can only share and cannot fix. Children need us to be there with, and for them, at such times.



Tags: , , ,