American Humane Association Blog
the nation's voice for the protection of children & animals
Author: Dr. Caren Caty, Ph.D.
April 17, 2013
American Humane Association
finding comfort in the wake of tragedy
people are experiencing powerful feelings
related to the tragedies that occurred at the Boston Marathon. There
are healthy and unhealthy ways to express emotions. Children are
especially vulnerable to a powerful display of emotion from adults
and the chaotic atmosphere that can create. Therefore, adults can
help children by remaining calm and attentive when children are
present. While it is important to try and keep the daily routine as
normal as possible, there may also be the need for added comfort
during this extraordinary time of stress.
Adults can comfort children by:
Talking, Hugging, Playing, Strolling, Riding Bikes, Reading Books,
Watching Movies, etc. with children.
Coming home from work and greeting your child with a smile, stating
enthusiastically, “It is so good to see you! How are you?” This
sends a positive message of caring and concern, and can be
especially beneficial for disconnected and withdrawn pre- teens and
teenagers. Whether or not there is an immediate response from the
child, an important positive message is passed from the adult to the
child and will resonate in that child’s brain.
Telling your child, “I love you,” which is among the most comforting
phrases (especially powerful with a hug).
● Taking notice of the
positive actions that occurred during the disaster, such as people
helping each other,
and police, doctors, and
others readily available to take care of those in need.
Complimenting positive things a child does and eliminate criticism.
Preparing a favorite meal.
Encouraging and modeling hugging, petting, walking, or just watching
TV with the family pet(s).
Having a positive attitude. Teaching children to “stop and smell the
roses,” or point out something beautiful in their surroundings.
Letting children know that you trust them to be alert and do the
right thing when you are not there to protect them.
(understanding the thoughts and feelings of others) is the
cornerstone of a compassionate society. This tragedy provides an
opportunity to express empathy and be motivated to help bring
comfort to others. Some children understand the concept of being the
best they can be in honor of those who were harmed and had their
lives greatly impacted by tragedy. This point of view promotes
feelings of gratitude in the child for what they have and motivation
to help others less fortunate. Community service involvement is a
great way to transform your feelings into positive actions. People
of all ages can take part in volunteer activities. Even very young
children can participate in a community beautification project, such
as planting a garden at their school.
Steps for Families to
Consider in Aftermath of Shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School
Dr. Caren Caty, Ph.D.
December 16, 2012
American Humane Association
Millions of kids are sent to school every day with the expectation
of a safe return home. Our notion of this guarantee has been
shattered, leaving adults feeling as though their children are not
safe and children feeling vulnerable to danger. Since it is the job
of the adults in a society to keep children safe, this tragedy will
lead many to experience a range of emotions. Some of the emotions
adults may experience include fear, sadness, anger, helplessness,
and denial in the struggle to process the senselessness of how
children’s lives were lost on an elementary school campus last week.
Children and adolescents may experience a range of emotions but
often do not have the ability to identify or express their feelings.
In this case some children may feel their own lives are in danger,
since the main targets of these mass murders were children.
Adults can help children and
adolescents through this difficult time by:
Not becoming over anxious. Children pick up on your anxiety and that
can add to their stress.
Demonstrating how to express feelings of sadness and grief and by
discussing how you feel with your children and providing an opportunity
for them to do the same.
Reducing the amount of time you and your children watch TV and
Internet reports of the tragedy.
● Finding ways to
comfort your children and providing strength for your children.
Reducing stress with hugs and cuddling. Include your pets in group
hugs. If your children are feeling very fearful they may benefit
from sleeping in close proximity to you (in your bed or in a
sleeping bag nearby).
Maintaining normal habits such as dinner time and a bedtime ritual
which helps to provide structure and can promote a sense of
Playing with your children, which can help reduce stress, especially
games such as coloring, board games, card games, etc. Drawing,
painting, and Play Doh sculpting can also be a way for children to
express their feelings.
Reassuring your children that they are safe and that you are safe
too. Children may become clingy, not wanting to leave your side for
fear that something bad will happen to them or to you.
Maintaining a connection with your community. Visit your local
recreation center where families gather and share comfort. Visit
your local religious establishment offering comfort and connection.
● Offering to volunteer as a playground monitor at your child’s school
for a few days, especially if you are a coach of a community youth
team or a regular presence at the school, as this can help children
feel safer while they are coping with shock and fear reactions
resulting from this tragedy.
communication open by being present and available for your children.
You don’t need to have all of the answers, just being there provides
comfort for your child.
force children to talk about their feelings. Be ready to listen when
they are ready to talk. All feelings are valid. A child may be more
“clingy” than usual and this is normal behavior under the
circumstances. Often during the long process of their own identity
development, children and adolescents can become less talkative and
moody, leaving parents and guardians frustrated over difficulties
with communication. Adolescents in particular have moments when they
are open to engaging in a discussion with parents or guardians. In
general, you may have noticed your child or adolescent is best at
communicating on the ride home from school, at dinner, or via text
message. Without forcing disclosure of feelings, discover the best
time to share meaningful communication with your child or
adolescent. Children and adolescents will experience healthier
outcomes when they are not left alone to process powerful feelings
and emotions. Find a way into their world where you can help them
identify and normalize their experiences.
Sometimes it starts with sharing how you feel.
Some children and adolescents may already be dealing with a crisis
such as parents divorcing, loss of a pet or significant person in
their lives, or a family member in the military. These children may
already be experiencing negative feelings which can become amplified
by the mass shooting. Some children may experience reactions such as
crying, shaking, and regression (bed wetting, thumb sucking). If
your child or adolescent demonstrates impaired functioning in
concentration and school performance, aggression, isolation, changes
in appetite, and lack of healthy connections and relationships then
it is time to visit your pediatrician and ask for a referral to
consult with a child and adolescent mental health specialist.
tragic event such as this takes a toll on everyone. If you are able,
help the vulnerable in your
community who may be less able to cope. If you feel
overwhelmed, stay connected to friends and family, consult with your
general medical practitioner, and seek guidance from a mental health
professional if needed.
In the days to come we must continue to focus on what can be
done to prevent these avoidable tragedies. Clearly, firearm-related
mortality among children and adolescents must be recognized as a
major health problem in the United States. With high levels of
suicidal tendencies among adolescents, easy availability of
extremely lethal means, and low levels of available mental health
support, it is incumbent upon policy makers and health care
professionals to determine how to effectively translate research
into life-enhancing outcomes for society’s youth.