How Parents and Teachers Can Respond to Tragic Events 

June 15, 2022By: Pedro Olvera, PhD

In recent years, we have witnessed several tragic events that have shaken our nation to the core. The seeming frequency of these tragedies, both in and out of schools, makes it almost impossible to escape the constant intake of post-tragedy images such as those we see on television and social media. In light of recent events, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) warned the public to avoid the “dangers of intrusive or excessive coverage” of these events.

As parents and teachers, we often wonder how we can protect the psychological state of children under our care when re-exposure to these events is constantly replayed in the media and on the web. Such exposure and internalization of graphic images can trigger or increase anxiety levels for children and youth.

For those at risk or suffering from mental health problems, it can often worsen their emotional state causing those affected to feel anger, depression, rage, and the feelings of wanting to harm themselves or others. As parents and teachers, we may struggle with the appropriate response when tragedies such as this occur. There is an undeniable delicate balance of wanting to avoid difficult conversations yet an obligation to comfort our children which may leave us at a loss on how to do what is best for them.  Below are five ways that you can respond when tragedy occurs: 

  1. Listen to the child and acknowledge their feelings and fears about the tragedy. Offer reassurance that their feelings are entirely normal in light of such tragic events. Do not feel the need to have answers to the tough questions of why tragic events such as this occur.  
  2. Limit television and social media exposure to the incident. As mentioned above, such exposure can trigger or even worsen the internal emotions of children and youth. Avoid discussing the traumatic event in the presence of children that may not be developmentally mature to process such conversations.  
  3. Reassure children that such tragedies are rare and that schools as a whole are safe and secure. Remind children that schools have crisis/safety plans which are usually coordinated with local agencies like law enforcement and fire departments.  
  4. Return to the child’s normal routine as soon as possible. Reinstating daily routines allows for a sense of normalcy and predictability.  
  5. Monitor any prolonged or extreme deviations from normal behavior. When such tragedies occur, most children and youth will express some anxieties and changes in behavior. However, extreme, or prolonged changes in sleep and eating patterns, mood, substance use, or other concerning behavior should be treated with caution, and help from a mental health specialist should be sought. 

As parents and teachers, we may not have all the answers when tough questions arise; however, listening and being present for the child is what they may need at that moment. Find additional resources below that can help you as you navigate communicating with and supporting children when tragic events occur. 

Resources and Helpful Links:

Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers (NASP) 

Helping Children Cope with Terrorism: Tips for Families and Educators (NASP Infographic)

Conversando con Niños Sobre la Violencia: Sugerencias para Padres y Maestros (NASP)

Helping Your Children Manage Distress in the Aftermath of a Shooting (APA)

How to Talk to Children About Violence Crime, and War

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