Last Wednesday, an 8-year old girl was in critical condition after she was shot in the abdomen by a classmate whose gun accidently discharged in his backpack. While the immediate priority is her physical recovery, I couldn't help but think of the emotional damage that she and her classmates will have to overcome. As an eight-year old child, how do you process being shot? How will her young classmates deal with what they saw?
As adults, traumatic events are shocking to deal with, but for young children, they may not even make sense. Their minds lack the experience and logic to understand the gravity of what happened and this can lead to behavior problems later in life. Studies show that adults who commit violence today most likely witnessed violence as children or were abused or neglected in early years. The ONLY way young children can deal with tragic events in a healthy manner is with the care, support, and guidance of an adult figure.
Everyone can help. Not just the immediate parents or caregivers, but the entire adult community; teachers, coaches, relatives and family friends all play a part in a child's positive development. With this in mind, here are five ways adults can help a child overcome tragedy:
1) Focus on positive reinforcements. Loving care and support is vital to helping a child through tough times. In general, adults need to make sure that positive reinforcers always outnumber punishers by a ratio of three to one. For parents, remember that a hug is often worth more than kind words alone.
2) Maintain regular structure and routines. They provide children with a sort of behavioral baseline. Whether it's eating family dinner, a bedtime story, or playing a game, keeping the routines the same will help children feel comfortable and secure because they are doing something that is familiar. The teacher of the classroom with the 8-year-old shooting could make use of this tip by keeping class time, playtime and lunches routine.
3) Nurture positive choices and teach problem-solving. Help children learn how to distinguish between simple good and bad choices. For instance, regarding cleaning a room a parent could say, "Do you want clean your room in time to watch your favorite show on TV or do you want to take a long time pouting before you decide to do it and then miss your favorite show?"
4) Remember every day is a new day and a new opportunity. Dealing with tragedy can manifest in so many different ways. Some children might become suddenly very angry, sad, or withdrawn while others may show no signs for weeks. The key is to remain calm and patient if unusual behavior does manifest. Keeping your own emotions in check teaches your child how to manage his emotions as well.
5) Understand that severe or ongoing problems require professional help. With the support of parents, most kids will recover from a tragic event in a short amount of time. However, some children will be more affected than others. If unusual or problematic behavior persists, mental health professionals have specialized training that can help children understand and deal with their feelings.
The fact of the matter is that there is often nothing adults can do to prevent children from experiencing tragedy in their lives. The key is to help make it part of the child's growth and development, instead of an impediment to it. Use the tragedy as an opportunity to build the emotional strengths that they will require to withstand the future storms that, unfortunately, are inevitable. Hang in there for the long run. With your support and patient teaching you will be sure to see your child succeed.
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–Dr. Kathy Seifert