How to Help Children Heal After Tragedy Strikes

February 21, 2018

Using lessons learned in the field, UNICEF USA President and CEO Caryl M. Stern offers advice for adults who want to comfort and protect the kids they love.

Yet another school shooting. The 14 students and three educators killed on Valentine’s Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL are the latest casualties in a horrific epidemic of gun violence in schools. According to estimates, guns have been fired in U.S. schools at least 18 times in 2018 — 18 times in the first 49 days of the year. Families across the country are on edge. How do we help our children cope with the unprecedented level of violence in America’s schools? How do we help our children feel safe?

For the past decade, as President and CEO of UNICEF USA, I’ve been dedicated to advancing UNICEF’s mission to help children around the world.  One of the crucial parts of our work is counseling and providing emotional support to children who, through no fault of their own, are growing up in war zones amidst humanitarian and natural disasters. With a long history of working with children through education and anti-bias training before coming to UNICEF USA, these conversations are very personal to me.

Children and young people respond differently to trauma than adults. Some may react immediately; others may withdraw and only show signs of difficulty later. Their needs will vary depending on their ages. Here is a guide for how to talk with and help your child after a disaster or traumatic event:

Focus on the child, not the trauma

Be present for your children. Listen carefully to their concerns. If your children are small, get down on their level. Speak in a calm voice, using words they understand. Young children may act out events they cannot comprehend. Teens may shrug off disturbing news and respond with a routine “I’m fine.”  At all ages, children look to the adults in their lives for guidance, so take a deep breath, meet them where they are emotionally and let them know that your love for them is unwavering.

Be careful not to pressure children

Some children will be eager to discuss what happened. Others may find it too disturbing to contemplate the specifics of an event. Children who are reluctant to talk about their feelings may find it easier to write or make art to help them process recent events. Don’t force it; follow their lead.

Offer reassurance

Tell your children that you love them and remind them that the adults in their life are doing everything they can to keep them safe. Give them lots of hugs. Plan to spend extra time with them as they get past the trauma. Children are resilient and hopeful. Give them time.

Help children get back to their normal routine

It is especially important for children affected by trauma to get back to playing and learning so they can regain a sense of routine and normalcy. In crisis spots around the world, UNICEF sets up Child-Friendly Spaces where children can get back to being children. Spending time with friends or having a quiet place to read or draw can help children regain their equilibrium.

Show them how they can help

Talking to children and showing how they can help others can be a vital step to restoring confidence. Consider what small actions you or they can take locally — together you can write letters to elected officials, or make posters or hold fundraisers for a trusted organization, or attend a rally or support a local program.

These conversations aren’t easy, but can be crucial to ensuring that children feel safe after terrifying events. This generation of children is growing up in a violent world not of their own making. The senseless attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School sadly connects American children with others just like themselves facing violence around the globe. From Parkland, FL to Syria, Bangladesh and Yemen, all children everywhere deserve to grow up in a world free of violence, where they can reach their full potential. It is time for decision makers to come together to protect children and address violence, in all its forms – and to create a world fit for our children.