Helping Kids Cope when the Unthinkable Happens

Unfortunately, children cannot always be protected from scary or stressful events. When these uninvited situations occur, it is important for the adults in their life to teach them how to cope in helpful ways. 

This past Sunday morning, the unthinkable happened in an affluent, family-friendly area of Houston, a neighborhood where community violence is rare. The shooting started at a small business and spread to the streets, as the gunman sprayed bullets with an AR-15 on citizens, police officers, a gas station, cars, helicopters, and about anything in his path. The mayhem led to a swarm of law enforcement officers, SWAT teams, cordoned off streets, and lock-downs in nearby homes, businesses, and churches. By the time the shooting stopped, fatalities and injuries had occurred. Even more people were indirectly impacted by this shooting through being on lock-down while the situation unfolded, hearing gunshots in their neighborhood, seeing heavily-armed police and SWAT team members in their yards looking for the suspect, seeing street signs punctured with bullet holes, or being exposed through countless other ways.

Given the number of children and families who were at churches in close proximity to this shooting, along with my own professional training in integrating the Christian faith with clinical psychology and also with child trauma, I am going to address helping children cope from a Christian perspective.

Tips for Parents:

  • If a child does not have knowledge of the event and the event will not directly impact the child’s life, then telling them information about the situation is really not necessary.
  • Guard children from media reporting of the situation. Media accounts are often repetitive and sensational. Exposure to articles, videos, or pictures via TV, radio, or social media may contribute to undue worry for kids.
  • Communicate with other parents. If your child will be around other children who have been exposed to the situation, it is helpful if the parents discuss beforehand what their child knows, what they want their child to know or not know, and their boundaries for exposure to information or accounts of the incident.

Tips for Parents of Children with Direct or Indirect Exposure to the Shooting:

  • Children don’t need to hear adults’ conversations about the event. Kids often pick up on any anxiety or panic communicated by adults and may internalize it for themselves. As a parent, it’s important to have healthy outlets to process your feelings regarding what has happened, but not in front of your children. It can be beneficial for kids to know that their parents share similar feelings about the situation, but children should not be put in the position of having to take care of their parents emotionally or be exposed to their parents’ emotions in such a way that it impacts the child’s emotional security; instead, it is helpful for kids when parents model appropriate ways to cope with negative feelings while not pulling them too far into the parent’s own coping process.
  • If children have knowledge about the situation; they need truthful and developmentally-appropriate information and answers to their questions. Typically, it is most helpful for children to be given brief information that is limited to their scope of knowledge about the event and congruent with their age and abilities. In other words, they don’t need to be offered information that they do not already have or have not asked about directly. In response to their questions, tell them the truth in a way that they can understand.
  • Restore a sense of security and safety. Children need to know that they are safe and that the event is over. They may need to be reminded of this often in the coming days. Talk to them about the rarity of an incident like this in their neighborhood. Remind them of the layers of protection around them, including you, family members, friends, neighbors, and police officers. Talk with your child and with God through prayer in front of the child about His protection, His comfort, and His love for those involved. Help your child pick out a Scripture to memorize that he or she finds comforting. Remind them that they can pray to God and talk with you any time they feel scared or worried. 
  • Maintain their usual routines. Kids find comfort in the familiarity and predictability of their normal daily rituals and routines, so these need to be resumed as soon as possible.
  • Validate their feelings about the situation. Many children need help identifying their feelings. Younger children often draw pictures about what they are feeling or act them out through play. Help facilitate their understanding of emotions by labeling the feeling they express and helping them know what to do with negative ones.
  • Give them freedom to express the fullness of their emotions in appropriate ways. Some kids will act out their anger and fears through aggression. Children need to know this is not ok and be taught appropriate ways for expressing those feelings. Some kids may feel angry with God for not preventing or stopping this incident. Give them permission to express those feelings to you and to God. Talk with them about how you cope with these types of questions and feelings. Children should not be shamed for their feelings, even if their expression of those feelings needs to be corrected.
  • Help facilitate positive coping strategies. Children exposed to the incident, either directly or indirectly, need outlets for processing the event. Every child is different and, as a parent, you will know how they typically cope with stressful situations, whether positively or negatively. Examples of positive coping strategies that you can encourage include: talking about what happened with trusted adults, drawing pictures, playing, listening to music, exercising, reading books, praying to God, reading Scriptures about God’s protection and comfort, writing letters to thank police officers, and engaging in favorite hobbies and activities. 
  • It is normal for kids exposed to community violence to express fears or worries in the immediate aftermath of the event. Their feelings may manifest as negative behaviors, physical symptoms (i.e., stomachaches, headaches), nightmares, not wanting to be alone, fear of the dark, being easily startled by loud noises, or avoidance of the area where the incident occurred. For most children, these symptoms are temporary. The majority of kids will adapt just fine after a traumatic event; however, some children will continue to display excessive or ongoing worries, symptoms, or negative behaviors well after the incident is over. If you are concerned that your child is having trouble coping with the incident, you may want to seek out some additional support from a mental health professional.

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