Supportive and age-appropriate advice and guidance in speaking to children about tragedy
*Sadly, this information was originally published in response to the Uvalde, Texas school shooting and is being adapted and reshared to support our community following the Highland Park, IL mass shooting.
In response to the recent mass shooting in Highland Park, IL, Compass behavioral health experts are sharing essential information on how to discuss tragedies and news events with young people. It is important to learn how to properly communicate with children and teens to address their stress responses, while also understanding that parents and caregivers are also experiencing and managing their own feelings during times of crisis.
Mass shootings can have an impact on the mental health of young people, as well as parents, caregivers, and teachers. These tragedies call for sensitive observation and honest conversations between young people and the trusted adults in their lives.
“The mass shootings impact the youth of our communities for years to come. Young people across the country with little proximity to the event are also greatly affected and are experiencing their own anxiety. Unfortunately, anxiety can be problematic and can lead to serious mental health issues such as depression, substance use, and suicide. Our youth are struggling at this time with the recent shootings, COVID, and the ongoing mental health crisis that has been plaguing our country for way too long,” said Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychiatrist, Claudia Welke, MD, Chief Medical Officer, and Co-founder, Compass Health Center & Compass Virtual.
“In the days after these events, it is important to keep the conversations going with children and teens. If you do notice that your child is struggling with persistent changes in behavior, sleep, or appetite, make sure you reach out for professional help. Thankfully, there are many resources in our communities whose mission is to help support the mental health of our youth,” Welke continued.
Finding solutions to help young people cope with mental health symptoms associated with crisis events should be done through delicate guidance by parents, school staff, and perhaps a mental health counselor. In addition, there is a growing mental health crisis among children and teens. According to a global study conducted by JAMA Pediatrics, youth depressive and anxiety symptoms doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms.
Below are 8 ways to help children navigate feelings post-crisis situations for parents, caregivers, and teachers:
- Allow yourself to have your feelings—grief, anger, rage, fear, etc.—but make sure that you have collected yourself before talking to your child.
- Take your child’s lead. Compass encourages parents and trusted adults to acknowledge that a tragedy occurred, to make space for questions and a discussion, and then allow the child to direct the conversation.
- Focus on safety. Parents and trusted adults should reassure children that places like schools, grocery stores, and outdoor events are typically very safe.
- Validate their feelings. Share that you were also scared, worried, or (insert your own feeling here). No emotion is “wrong.”
- Limit TV and social media. Disturbing images or graphic descriptions can impact children.
- Maintain a typical routine and be mindful of any changes in sleep, appetite, or behavior that may be an indication of increased anxiety.
- Give them a sense of control. If your child does seem to be exhibiting symptoms of anxiety, teaching them a few simple relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, may help.
- Remember there is no “perfect” thing to say. Listening, making space for conversation, and reassuring them that they are safe goes a long way.
“In the aftermath of any tragedy, it is reasonable for adults to experience feelings of sadness, fear, and anger. When the tragedy is a community event or public shooting, it can alter our ability to feel safe in our communities while doing. When the grocery store, places of worship, outdoor events, and schools no longer feel safe, it can make us feel helpless,” said Ann Bystedt, LCSW and Compass’s Director of Child Programs in Chicago. “It is important to be mindful of your own emotions and their impact on your daily functioning. Children turn to trusted adults in their lives for reassurance and adults must take time to process their own emotions to effectively be there for their children. For young people and adults, if worries, anger, or fear begin to impact your ability to function, it is important to recognize that reaching out for more support is brave and care is available.”
Clinician-Led Virtual Post-Crisis Support Groups
Having access to comprehensive behavioral health is a key component in dealing with the aftermath of these types of traumas. Qualified treatment programs should provide the skills and strategies needed to cope appropriately.
In response to the horrific events that took place in Highland Park on July 4th, Compass Health Center is offering clinician-led, virtual post-crisis support starting Wednesday, July 6th, 2022.
These events will focus on how to respond to strong emotions that follow a crisis. Please see below for the list of upcoming virtual groups, and the links to register.
Presentations are meant to be educational and supportive in nature and are not intended to be a substitute for treatment or crisis care. Please note that steps have been taken to ensure the privacy of attendees. Only clinicians will be visible, and comments will not be posted publicly.
How to Talk to Children about Tragedy for Parents
Skills for Coping in the Aftermath of Tragedy for Young Adults (Ages 16-23)
Skills for Coping in the Aftermath of Tragedy for Adults (Ages 24+)