Signs your child is struggling to cope after a tragedy

The recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida brings out many emotions in people of all ages. Children especially may not know how to deal with the sadness, helplessness, anxiety or anger. As a result, they may turn to parents or trusted adults for help and guidance.

Continue the conversation

It’s important to sit down and talk immediately after a tragic event, but the conversation doesn’t have to end there. SSM Health Dean Medical Group psychiatrist Dr. Sean Ackerman recommends following up and encouraging your child to ask questions when they come up.

“Children and teens are better able to cope with a difficult situation when they are accurately informed about it,” Ackerman said. “Inaccurate information can lead to misconceptions, which may hurt your child’s ability to cope with their emotions.”

In many cases, kids will also want to hear about their own safety. They might personalize the events, and ask if something similar could happen at their school or a parent’s workplace. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network says he or she is probably really asking whether it is “likely.” The concern about reoccurrence is common, so it is important to discuss the likelihood of this risk. This may be a time to review plans your family has for keeping everyone safe in any crisis.

What to watch for

Signs of struggle may take on many forms. In the immediate aftermath, children may have problems paying attention and concentrating. They may also be more irritable or defiant. Younger kids can have trouble separating from parents or caregivers.

“It’s no surprise, because it’s normal for kids to worry about how a national story can impact their own lives,” Ackerman said. “Generally, anxiety will start to decrease within a few weeks.”

Be a positive role model

During your conversations, don’t shy away from sharing your own feelings about the events. Be careful to speak in words and terms they understand. They’re likely interested to hear your take on the issue, and may feel closer to you if you’re experiencing similar feelings.

“It’s okay to express worry or anxiety, but even in such difficult moments it also doesn’t hurt for kids to hear you believe there is a way forward.” Ackerman said. “Oftentimes, there are stories of heroism or resilience that can offer hope for the future in the midst of tragedy.”