We express our deepest sympathies to the families and communities who have lost loved ones in the recent Manchester and London Bridge attacks. In the wake of these attacks, and the increase in global terrorism and violence, it is imperative that we utilize positive tools in helping kids cope with a traumatic death, as they process, understand, and express their related anxiety, fear, loss, and confusion.
Although parents try to shelter their children, kids are often victims or witnesses of violence, or they frequently hear about the attacks in their classrooms and playgrounds, in the media, and through adult conversations. Explaining a traumatic death can be a difficult task for parents and other adult caregivers. It is complicated enough to explain death to a young child, let alone a shocking and violent death. Most young children are too developmentally immature to cognitively grasp and emotionally manage the concept of death. Yet, in today’s world, children are being repeatedly exposed to terrorist attacks and violent deaths in their communities, and in the news and media.
As a parent, you want to protect your children, but this isn’t always possible. The best thing you can do for your children is to make sure you are prepared to help them after they witness or are exposed to a traumatic death. Doing so will decrease the probability of your child developing anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, aggression, and other possible behavioral symptoms. It is important that you explain the violence and death to your young children in ways they can understand and cope with given their innocence and immature developmental abilities.
Here are some suggestions for approaching this difficult topic:
- We can explain the traumatic incident to children in simple, non-graphic facts. Kids know what happened. Keeping it a ‘secret’ or making up a story about it may only add confusion and mistrust.
- Kids may fear talking about it because it is a “secret or forbidden topic.” To create healthy dialogues, we can invite children to ask adults any questions they might have about what happened or about themselves and their loved ones.
- Children often worry, “will it happen to me? Can it happen at our school or in our neighborhood?” We can reassure and comfort children by telling them that this scary event is not an everyday occurrence, and that children are safe.
- We can use simple words and simple sentences that avoid hate, racism, and fear. Young children grasp issues better when it is explained in emotionally neutral, brief, and clear ways.
- We can tell children that this is a very sad event that should never have happened.
- We can reinforce and tell children that the adults are working hard to keep all children safe – at home, at school, on the playground, and in the community.
- We can turn our televisions off while children are in the room, and make sure adult conversations take place with only adults in the room.
- We can help children mourn and grieve, and process their thoughts and feelings via books on loss, puppets, drawings, and stories. Children process through “displacement,” because it is safer to express thoughts and feelings in non-direct vs. direct ways. My new book, Where Did My Friend Go? Helping Children Cope With A Traumatic Death is an excellent tool for kids to understand and cope with a sudden and traumatic death. It is a therapeutic coping children’s picture book to be read by an adult (parent, teacher, counselor, etc.), to a young child (3-8 years), who has witnessed, survived, or lost someone to a traumatic death. The purpose of the book is to facilitate the child’s processing and coping of the fear, loss, and confusion associated with the trauma in developmentally appropriate and safe ways.
- We can write letters, draw pictures, and send toys to children who have survived a traumatic incident. Giving back to others can be very healing for kids.
- Teachers and health professionals can play a critical role in identifying children who have been exposed to a traumatic death, and making appropriate referrals.
Children who have had the misfortune to be directly exposed to a traumatic death or have lost a loved one to a violent death, such as in the Manchester and London Bridge attacks, could be at risk for developing anxiety, PTSD, depression, or other concerning behavioral symptoms. Providing a positive, simple, and reassuring framework to explain and process the traumatic death shifts the content from terrifying and overwhelming to understandable and manageable. Although we cannot stop children from witnessing or hearing about terrible deaths, as in weapon violence and terrorist attacks, we can provide them with words and tools that foster coping, resilience, and adaptation.
Parents, teachers, pediatricians, ER doctors, counselors, and social workers in schools, shelters, community clinics, and hospitals, who are the first to observe socio-emotional and physical symptoms in children, can use clinical interviews, questionnaires, and Where Did My Friend Go? as first step assessment and intervention tools. The professionals on the front lines working with affected children need to be proactive in asking children about their exposure to terrorist attacks and weapon violence. The play-based interventions at the end of the book are also an effective guide for parents and professionals on how to explore, shift, and reassure young children’s trauma, anxiety, and loss to more adaptive functioning.
As we live in an increasingly violent world, it is essential that parents, educators, and other adult caregivers not forget the silent victims, the innocent bystanders, the children who are watching, listening, and feeling from the sidelines. Parents need to continue to support and help young children cope cognitively and emotionally with ongoing tragedies. Most importantly, if kids are living in fear and worry that it could happen again, at any time, to them and their loved ones, we need to continue to send the powerful reassuring message of hope and safety to children, and deliver the actions that will keep our children and families safe.