American Humane Association Blog

the nation's voice for the protection of children & animals

Author: Dr. Caren Caty, Ph.D.

April 17, 2013

Senior Fellow American Humane Association

finding comfort in the wake of tragedy

Many 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 This sends a positive message of caring and concern, and can be especially beneficial for disconnected and withdrawn pre- teens and teenagers.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.

Empathy (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

Author: Dr. Caren Caty, Ph.D.

December 16, 2012

Senior Fellow 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 security.

● Playing with your children, which can help reduce stress, especially games such as coloring, board games, card games, etc. Drawing, painting, and Play Dough 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.

● Keeping 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.

Don’t 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.

A 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.



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