Health Break | Published February 11, 2011

When Innocence is Lost: Helping Your Child Cope with Tragedy

Images and talk of violence affect our everyday lives, causing a lot of anxiety. However, these incidents are especially confusing and overwhelming for children. Although age plays a part in determining when a child can understand stressful events, there are steps you can take to reassure your children and make them feel comforted and safe. The recent shootings in Arizona and the earthquake in Haiti certainly present a challenge, as natural disasters and senseless violence can be hard to deal with for people of any age.“When talking to your child about an emotional loss, scary events in their lives or tragedy in the news, you must take their age, maturity level and overall temperament into consideration,” said Tim Derstine, MD, psychiatrist and Medical Director of the Behavioral Health Unit at Mount Nittany Medical Center. “What one child might be able to cope with could be very distressing to another child.” Following are tips to help your child cope and understand tragic events:
  • Always be honest and give answers that are simple and age-appropriate
  • If your child was directly involved or lost someone in the tragedy, professional assistance might be necessary
  • Toddlers and school-age children may not understand that an event isn’t happening over and over when the news replays images, so it may be best to restrict access to certain TV shows or news coverage to insulate them from the traumatizing event
  • Children often have magical thinking (believing that their actions can cause unrelated events), so you must reassure them that they are safe and they are not at fault
  • It is difficult to protect your school-age child from the news, so always provide age-appropriate information and facts without giving too many details, especially if your child is asking questions
  • Older children may be able to cope better than younger children but still need support. Ask open-ended questions and encourage them to talk openly about their fears and concerns
When younger children experience a lot of stress, they are often unable to verbalize their fears and worries. Therefore, it’s important to look for signs and symptoms that may indicate they are having trouble coping. These can include:
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Regressive behaviors such as thumb sucking, bedwetting or fear of the dark
  • Temper tantrums
  • High sensitivity to sounds
  • Aggressive behavior such as lying, bullying and engaging in disruptive behavior
  • Nervous habits, such as pulling hair, biting nails or scratching themselves

Talk with your pediatrician or family medicine physician if your child seems to be having trouble coping. If you don’t have a physician, go online to for a complete list of local providers.