Infants and Toddlers: Infants and toddlers cannot process what is happening, but they can pick up on the fear and stress of the adults in their lives. For infants, the most important thing is to make them feel safe. Try to stay calm and not show your own fear and anxiety to your children; process your feeling with another trusted adult. Hold your children, sing to them, and help them to feel calm and loved.
Preschool: Preschool age children may have the capability to somewhat understand violent events, but they may not understand such concepts as death or why everyone around them is upset. Preschoolers impacted by violence may complain of physical problems, such as stomachaches or headaches. They may suddenly return to behaviors such as bed-wetting and thumb-sucking, and they may show increased fearfulness (for example, of the dark, monsters, or being alone). For this age group, it is important to allow children to talk about what they are feeling, giving them the chance to process their fear with a trusted adult.
School Age: School age children understand the concepts of violence and may fear it will happen to them. They may feel guilty if the violence was close to them, thinking that if they had done or said something differently, the violence would have lessened. Children at this age who are having a hard time processing the violence they see and hear may start having problems in school. They may isolate themselves from family and friends. Nightmares are common, and they may refuse to go to bed or experience other sleep problems. They can become irritable, angry, or disruptive, be unable to concentrate, or complain of physical problems such as stomachaches and headaches. With this age group, it is important to allow them to process those feelings with a trusted adult. Allowing them to cry, be angry, and talk about their feelings is important. Listen without judging and help them understand what they are feeling.
Teens: Teens are more likely to know exactly what is happening and may react in many different ways. Be mindful of your own reactions to the event and of the fact that adolescents need the support of calm caregivers. Teens may talk or think about the event frequently or even say the event didn’t happen. Their behaviors may range from becoming more disruptive, disrespectful, or behaving destructively. Or, they may become isolated from friends and family. Teens who can’t process the violent events may turn to using drugs or alcohol as coping mechanisms. Teenagers may feel more comfortable confiding in their friends about what happened, rather than to adults. Don’t take it personally. The best you can do is listen, remain open and available, and let them know you’re there for them. Try to make them feel comfortable about talking with you. But don’t force them to talk if they do not want to. Don’t downplay their feelings by saying things like “Don’t worry” or “Cheer up.” Try not to make judgments or give advice. Instead, let them know you’re there to help them find solutions.
For kids of all ages, limit viewing of news coverage of violent events on television and on social media. Monitor their behavior and moods. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help if your child is showing signs of anxiety and stress. And, most importantly, take care of yourself and reach out for help in the event that you are having a difficult time dealing with the violence. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Disaster Distress Helpline provides crisis counseling (24 hours a day, 365 days a year) for those experiencing emotional distress due to natural or human-made disasters. This service is provided in more than 100 languages and is confidential. The number is 800-985-5990. Reach out, if you need help.
· National Institute of Mental Health: Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Disasters and Other Traumatic Events: What Parents, Rescue Workers, and the Community Can Do
· American Psychological Association: How to Talk to Children about Difficult News
· Kids Health from the Nemours Foundation: How to Talk to Your Child about the News
· The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: After a Crisis: Helping Young Children Heal
· Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention: Healing the Invisible Wounds: Children’s Exposure to Violence A Guide for Families
· National Association for the Education of Young Children: Coping with Violence