ECU experts provide tips on talking to children about recent tragedies

From hurricanes to shootings, children are being exposed to tragedy

A U.S. Army carry team transfers the remains of Army Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright of Lyons, Georgia, at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, U.S. on October 5, 2017. Courtesy Aaron J. Jenne/U.S. Air Force/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.

GREENVILLE — Social media feeds and television broadcasts have been inundated with discussions of hurricane relief and gun violence tragedies from harrowing stories of survival to honoring the lost. Children will undoubtedly be exposed to these pieces of history, and the exposure can make more of an impact people often realize.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma caused extreme destruction leaving millions homeless, without power and in dire need of assistance. On the heels of these two natural disasters, the nation was gripped by the terrible shooting rampage in Las Vegas only a few weeks later. Earlier this month, four U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger.

As they always do, hurricanes will return each fall. Shootings of all types are becoming a fixation on the nightly news. Sadly, our nation will likely to continue to be involved in deadly conflicts abroad.

Children will undoubtedly be exposed to these stories as the news cycle churns out story after story. Churches will pray, communities will hold relief drives and a nation will unify to heal. So, how does this affect children?

Children can experience secondary trauma or emotional duress that results when a person hears about a firsthand trauma experienced by another person. This can cause children to experience nightmares. Children can have difficulty concentrating in school, have behavior and mood changes, fear separation, and exhibit symptoms of anxiety and depression.

We asked the experts at East Carolina University to provide tips for discussing these events with children to make sure they are processing the information and associated emotions in a healthy way.

Be reassuring

No matter the outcome of a disaster, parents should reassure their children they are safe and will be taken care of — two essential elements children need to feel.

“Children do not have the cognitive ability to rationalize exaggerated comments. If they overhear an adult say, ‘The world will end,’ children believe the world will end,” said Dr. Sheresa Blanchard, assistant professor of human development and family science in ECU’s College of Health and Human Performance.

These kinds of statements can lead to fear and uncertainty.

What do they know

Though parents may limit what children view or hear at home about recent tragedies, it’s harder to completely shield them from conversations at school or social media posts. Dr. Erin Roberts, clinic director of the ECU Family Therapy Clinic, suggests parents ask their children what they know about recent events to get an idea of their understanding.

“Give children the space and the opportunity to share their emotions too and ask questions. Ask them how they feel about what they’ve seen and heard,” she said.

Be honest

Melissa Nolan, director of ECU’s Nancy Darden Child Development Center, says that it’s OK to be honest with your children and share what you are feeling in a way that is appropriate for their age.

“Don’t give children more information than what they want,” said Nolan.

She suggests encouraging children to ask questions and for adults to stick with short, honest answers.

“Adults tend to give too much information,” she added.

“Kids are really good at noticing when we are upset,” said Roberts. “If they ask what’s bothering you, it’s OK to be honest with them that recent events have made you sad. Ask them how they feel, too.”

Choose your words and actions carefully

Children and teens pick up on changes in a parent’s demeanor and may overhear conversations at home.

“Be aware of your moods and behavior and if it’s changed due to recent events,” said Roberts.

It can be confusing for children if the actions and words of their parents show they are upset but they tell their children everything is fine, said Roberts.

“We don’t want to put too much on our children but it is OK to model how to identify your emotions and state them out loud,” she said.

Take care of yourself

It’s important for adults to know what they’re watching and how it is affecting them.

Roberts said we know ourselves best and if adults aren’t taking care of themselves and are taking in a lot of information from the media, they could become anxious and project their anxiety, fear or anger onto their children unintentionally.

“Take a few deep breaths, reflect on how this may be affecting you and do something that helps you take care of yourself,” said Roberts.

She suggests a relaxing bath, talking to a friend, going to therapy or getting involved in efforts to support victims of the tragedy.

“Taking care of yourself will give you more space to be able to be there for your children,” she said.