It just seems that the news cycle is dominated by tragedy and grief. Just yesterday, I posted on overcoming tragedy and loss. The shooting at a Quebec Mosque by Alexandre Bissonnette today highlights this. In stressful times, be it national, local or international, it is important for families and communities to work together to foster supportive relationships. As caring adults, we need to help children and youth navigate their emotional reactions to these incidents. Tragic incidents can alter a person’s sense of security thus the importance of offering reassurance to children and youth.
Dr. Elizabeth Paquette, Chief Psychologist at the Ottawa Catholic School Board recommends the following strategies to assist with helping children and youth feel safe.
Be reassuring. Children take their emotional cues from the significant adults in their lives. Your reactions are most important. Recognize that some children may be concerned about something bad happening to themselves, family or friends. Explain to them the safety measures in place and reassure them that you and other adults will take care of them.
Be a good listener and observer. Let children guide you to learn how concerned they are or how much
information they need. If they are not focused on the tragedy, do not dwell on it. However, be available to
answer their questions to the best of your ability. Provide a safe space for them to talk about their fears.
Young children may not be able to express themselves verbally. Pay attention to changes in their
behavior or social interactions. The following reactions in children or youth may indicate a need for further
support: isolation or refusal to attend school, or withdrawal from social activities.
Monitor the news. Images of a disaster or crisis event can become overwhelming, especially if watched
repetitively. Young children in particular may not be able to distinguish between images on television and
their personal reality. Older children may choose to watch the news, but be available to discuss what they
see and to help put it into perspective.
Emphasize people’s resiliency. Help children understand the ability of people to come through a tragic
event and go on with their lives. Focus on children’s own competencies in terms of how they coped in
daily life during difficult times. In age–appropriate terms, identify other crises from which people,
communities, or countries have recovered.
Highlight positive outcomes. It can be helpful to notice the good that emerges within tragic events;
such as how the world or a community comes together, how people help one another, the heroes that
help, and small acts of kindness.
Highlight people’s compassion and humanity. Large–scale tragedies often generate a tremendous
outpouring of caring and support from around the country and world. Focus on the help and hopeful
thoughts being offered to those affected by other people.
Encourage positive coping strategies and behaviours. Regular sleep routines and healthy eating are
important to emotional well–being. Encourage children to participate in activities they enjoy to help deal
Maintain as much continuity and normalcy as possible. Allowing children to deal with their reactions
is important but so is providing a sense of normalcy. Routine family activities, classes, after–school
activities, and friends can help children feel more secure and better able to function.
Spend family time. Being with family is always important in difficult or sad times. Even if your children
are not significantly impacted by this tragedy, this may be a good opportunity to participate in and to
appreciate family life. Doing things together reinforces children’s sense of stability and connectedness.
Ask for help if you or your children need it. Any tragedy can feel overwhelming for families directly
affected, particularly those who have lost loved ones. Staying connected to your community can be
extremely helpful. It may also be important to seek additional support from a mental health professional to
cope with overwhelming feelings.
Communicate with your school. Children directly impacted by the disaster may be under a great deal of
stress that can be very disruptive to learning. Together, parents and teachers can determine what extra
support or leniency students need and work with parents to develop a plan to help student. Report any
instances of bullying or harassment (in–person or on social media) that you become aware of.
Be aware of your own needs. Don’t ignore your own feelings of anxiety, grief, and anger. Talking to
friends, family members, priest, and mental health counselors can help. It is important to let your children
know that you are sad. You will be better able to support your children if you can express your own
emotions in a productive manner. Get appropriate sleep, nutrition, and exercise.