Fears that might have seemed distant are now on our doorstep, and parents need to prepare to help their children process them, said Linda Close, a licensed mental health counselor based in Davie, Florida.
While younger children have likely been shielded from the tragedy, many older children have seen or heard the reports, and everyone is going to react differently, Close said. “Some are feeling very fearful, some are feeling probably angry, some are probably feeling nothing much at all but numbness. They are checking out.”
Confusion, frustration and sadness are also to be expected, she said, “and helpless. I think helplessness is going to be a big part of what they are feeling.”
First, limiting exposure to news coverage is really important. They more they hear it over and over, the more they are traumatized by the event, she said.
Parents should try to identify their own emotions first, find out what they are feeling and how they are reacting to it, Close said. If they aren’t aware, when their children speak up and share, parents might get caught up in others’ emotions, and it will be hard for them to be objective. “Be aware of what you are thinking and feeling so you can separate that from your kids,” she said.
Ask your children what they are feeling about what happened. “If the child is expressing major concerns about not wanting to go back to school, it is important for parents to listen,” Close said. Ask them questions, such as “What scares you the most?”
“The questions help them think through and be able to release that energy,” she said.
Don’t rush your child, Close said. “It is hard for parents to see kids emotionally hurting, but if they try to work through emotions prematurely, kids won’t feel listened to and respected,” she said. “Don’t make your child feel silly or foolish. They feel what they feel.”
Encourage your children to get it out. “Encourage them to let out some of that energy creatively through drawing or play sports,” Close said.
Parent should take ownership of kids’ electronics and limit exposure for children and younger teens, ages 13, 14 and 15, she said.
With older teens, “parents could use the opportunity to teach kids to set their own boundaries. Watching this over and over again can cause these feelings to come back. Teach them to limit themselves. Tell them, ‘We can go do something else besides getting into electronics.’ “
Parents have to be proactive about this, Close said. “They get flooded with feelings when they see things over and over again. They’re also curious to know what’s going on. Each child has to learn their own limitations.”
If children are not able to set their own limits, parents could help them set those boundaries.
Parents should also encourage kids to reconnect with people who are safe at this time, such as family and good friends. “Trauma is when your whole security has been blown up. … You now know how vulnerable you are. They need to feel safe again. That’s why it is important to do a lot of talking, listening and reconnecting.”
Parents should remember that not everyone is going to respond the same, Close said. “Parents need to sit down and talk with them and find a way to help them feel secure. Parents just need to be aware of what’s going on with their child.”
Try not to push your child to be in a place emotionally that they are not ready to go to just because you are uncomfortable, Close warned. “Allow them to be where they are and work with them where they are, which might mean you have to deal with your own discomfort.”
Warning signs if a child is not adjusting over time:
Withdrawing, not wanting to go places or to school
Sleeplessness and nightmares
Physical aches, stomachaches
They start to worry they are going to get hurt no matter where they go
They can also get very critical of teachers and parents.