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Helping Children Cope with Traumatic Events

As we learn more about the deadly shooting at Sparks Middle School yesterday, the grieving process begins. What is the best way to talk to children about tragedy and help them cope with traumatic events?

Prakash Masand M.D. is a former consulting professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center, and president of Global Medical Education.

His tips for parents to help their children:

Ask questions and be supportive – Never assume your child fully understands tragic events. Children have wild imaginations and have a hard time sorting their emotions out during a tragedy. Ask direct questions like, “what are you feeling?” and “what’s bothering you?” to fully understand what’s going through their mind. Never ridicule or make fun of a child’s feelings and always offer support.

Encourage children to express feelings – This can be done through talking, drawing, playing or whatever means makes the child most comfortable.

Honesty pays – explain to your children that although these events are very rare, unfortunately they do happen from time to time. Reinforce the idea that a school is a safe place where they can feel comfortable learning and growing.

Remain calm – Children love to mimic the behaviors of their parents. The way adults react to events is often the way the child perceives and reacts to the event so try and stay calm.

Maintain a child’s routine – After a traumatic event, stick to your child’s normal routine. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time, eat meals at the same time, and engage in every activity you usually do. Ignoring a child’s routine after tragedy will make him or her feel more anxious.

Reinforce a sense of security – Over the next few days, spend a little extra time with your child to reinforce feelings of safety and security.

Warning signs to watch for – Distressing dreams and constant memories of the event, intense psychological or physiological reactions to cues that remind them of the event, inability to experience positive emotions, decreased concentration, exaggerated startle response. Symptoms usually begin 3 days to 1 month after the event and will impact 6% to 33% of the children depending on what they witnessed among other risk factors.

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