Julie Linker Ph.D.

The Resilient Child

Helping Children Cope With Violent Events in the News

Giving a sense of control and stability in a difficult time.

Posted Apr 20, 2018

Psychotherapy often serves as a tool to help us address challenges a child faces from within—failures in their coping systems. However, in the wake of a violent event, it’s a different story. Children need interventions because there’s something very wrong in the world around them.

In my role providing therapy for children and their families, I see firsthand the impact violence has on children. Several of my patients required significant interventions in the weeks following the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. This act of violence was scary enough on its own, but for my patients—all middle and high school students—it exacerbated the mental health challenges they already face in their daily lives.

My patients, even those who normally enjoy school, began seeing their schools—and maybe even their fellow students—as unsafe. They also saw adults and the school systems as unable to protect them. For some, their fears mirrored those of their parents, and these typically smart, hard-working students began refusing to go to school. Their parents were unsure of how to help them.

These children are on my radar because they were already seeking mental health care. However, violent events can affect any child, especially those old enough to follow and understand current events. Some may not know how to express their feelings or ask for help. While every child—and every mental health challenge—is unique, here are a few things parents can do to prepare for and respond to their children’s needs.

Help children be smart consumers of media.

Long before tragedy strikes, you can start equipping your children to understand and process the news. First, you need to understand where they’re getting information. Friends and social media likely will factor heavily, but it helps to know if they’re also following any credible news sources. Then, it helps to spend time watching or reading the news together, discussing what you hear and what it means. This helps children develop the skills to ask questions and think critically about the information they take in.

Ask questions, early and often.

Having a good grasp on your children’s experiences at school is important, and the only way to get the scoop is to ask. If it helps, you can start with more general questions, then get specific to your children. Is it an encouraging place? Are there a lot of bullies at the school? Do your children feel like they belong? Do they feel safe? These questions become even more important in the aftermath of an act of violence. Sometimes, there are obvious signs that something is wrong—playing sick, not wanting to go to school, grades dropping—but you don’t want to wait for those to check in. Having regular conversations about school paves the way to identifying fears and anxieties in times of stress or trauma.

Work together to address fears.

It’s natural to want to keep your children at home if they’re afraid. However, the longer children stay away from school, the harder it is to go back and find a way to move forward. Instead, try to work with your child and the school to address their fears directly and find ways to help them feel safe.

Find ways to empower your child.

After a violent event, many of us feel helpless and unsure of what to do next—especially children, who have less control over their lives and schedules. Taking concrete actions to feel safe and empowered can help overcome these feelings. For some children, this may mean participating in efforts to advocate for safer schools. There are many options with different levels of involvement. Your children may want to join a march or attend a city council meeting to share their thoughts. Or, it may help to express themselves less publicly, by writing a letter to a representative or speaking one-on-one with their school principal. Other children may need to step away from the issue and focus on other interests, like playing games or sports, reading or doing art projects. The main goal is to give them a sense of control and stability in a difficult time.