Mind Matters — Helping Children Cope

Here we are again, revisiting how to help children cope with yet another school shooting. Children, whether they be toddlers, teens, or even in their twenties, are affected by such violence. Parents and families can help them feel safe. The American Psychological Association (APA), the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) are a few of the organizations that study and disseminate information regarding violence and its effects upon children.

Take note first of all that children are emotional barometers for whatever is happening in the family and the parents. Children may not be able to verbally express their feelings but their behavior mimics the prevailing feelings in the household. If there is anxiety, tension, anger, depression in the family environment, children absorb these feelings. Young children’ behavior can be a mirror on family dynamics.

With that in mind, parents can recognize the importance of being role models to their children and as parents learn to cope with their feelings in healthy ways, so can their children. Parents need to take news breaks as well as the children do. Self-care is important. Take walks alone and with the kids; remember to play!

In his program, Mr. Rogers would remind us all to pay attention to our feelings and express them in healthy ways. The APA recommends talking with your children, and most importantly, listening to them. How and what you talk about depends, of course, on their developmental age, but everyone—including the oldest adult—wants to be heard. Look for opportune times when children feel most at ease to talk—perhaps while riding in the car, or at dinner or bedtime. Try not to interrupt and try to take in their point of view. Without judgment of theirs, you can express your own perspective.

Children want home to be their safe haven. Let them know with words and actions that you are there to “provide safety, comfort and support.”

After a traumatic event, both children and adults may experience a gamut of emotions—fear, anxiety, grief, shock, and so on. Both children and adults have physiological reactions too, such as difficulty sleeping, or eating, or concentrating. Older children and adults might find it helpful to journal their thoughts and feelings. Doing a free write of worries for just twenty minutes a day can provide immense relief. Art is another great way to release pent up emotions and small children love to color and draw.

Like adults, adolescents may find relief, especially to grief, by taking action that provides a sense of self efficacy. The Parkland, Florida, teenagers responded to the mass murder of seventeen of their fellow students and teachers by staging demonstrations for gun control. Their action has prompted other adolescents to do likewise. Throughout history, people have taken action after tragedy, trauma, and injustice. Sometimes this action has actually changed history’s course.

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