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In a Crisis, Parents Must Be There, Be Aware for Their Children

In the aftermath of a crisis like a school shooting, there is often a rush to provide psychiatric counseling for students affected by the tragedy. 

While such counseling can be valuable, not every child who experiences such a crisis needs it.  Humans are hard-wired to survive emotional trauma, and everyone – including teenagers – has natural, “built-in” coping mechanisms that can help them deal with the challenges of such events.

This information is included in our Guide to Parenting through Crisis. Click here to see the rest of the guide.

This doesn’t mean kids can go it alone. Parents must take the lead role in supporting their children, promoting the healing process and encouraging a return to normalcy, immediately after the event and in the months that follow.

The keys to parenting in a crisis are being available to listen and giving kids the time and space they need to sort through and share what they’re feeling, using those built-in coping mechanisms.

First, parents must understand that it is normal for their children to feel upset, sad, confused or scared and other strong emotions when something bad happens, and let their kids know it’s okay to have those feelings.  Parents should make sure their kids know they can talk to them anytime, but should not force or press the issue. Being available and supportive is the most important parenting advice in this situation.

One way to encourage children to talk about how they’re feeling is to say a family prayer during dinner for the person or persons who lost their lives or were hurt. This is a wonderful, proactive way to remember the victims and make it easier for a young person to open up and confide in Mom and Dad. 

The days and weeks following a crisis also are a time when family members should show affection and be kinder and gentler with each other. Surrounding a child with tender loving care and the “milk of human kindness” is exactly what is needed to begin the healing.

Parents also should encourage their children to return to their regular activities as soon as possible. This means getting back to school, continuing involvement in academics, sports, music and church, and socializing with friends (talking on the phone, going to movies, shopping at the mall, hanging out).

Parents, teachers and friends are natural grief counselors; they are often the most potent sources of comfort and assistance in a crisis. That’s why it’s important for children to get back to the activities and people who are important to them.

Kids may put up some resistance. They might feel it’s just not “right” to go back to life as usual; they might feel it shows disrespect to those who were hurt or killed in the event. Or, kids may think that things can never go back to the way they were. But parents have a responsibility to support their kids and to help them understand that life will go on and that it’s okay to study, laugh, have fun and be a kid again.

Finally, children should be allowed and encouraged to grieve for those who were killed or injured. Religious ceremonies, candlelight vigils, moments of silence, tributes and funerals are ways to honor those who were lost, but also serve as a release for those who are left behind to mourn. 

Through all of this, parents should be vigilant and watchful, keeping their eyes and ears open for signals of deeper problems. These might include changes in eating or sleeping habits, not being able to return to normal activities or feeling guilty about being a “survivor.”  If parents notice these or other red flag behaviors continuing two weeks or longer after the event, they should seek professional help.

Monitoring and vigilance should continue long after the crisis. It is normal for young people to still feel grief and sadness or to want to talk about the event or someone who was lost months later. It’s the same as remembering or missing a loved one who passed away years earlier. As long as a child is functioning normally and hasn’t had any problems getting back to his or her routine, this shouldn’t be a cause for alarm.

A tragedy like a school shooting affects the whole community, but it is most difficult for the students who were directly involved and their parents and families. Parents must provide the time, support, understanding and vigilance necessary for their children to cope, heal and move on.​

Crisis Care Parenting Tips

  • Everyone – including teenagers – is hard-wired to recover from crisis events and has “built-in” coping mechanisms.
  • It is normal for kids to feel upset, sad, confused or afraid after something bad happens; let your child know it’s okay to have these feelings.
  • Always be available to talk and listen to your child, but don’t force children to talk about their feelings.
  • Parents, friends and teachers are the best sources of support, caring and understanding.
  • Getting kids back to their normal activities as soon as possible promotes coping and healing.
  • Give kids time and space to sort through their feelings.
  • Monitor kids and stay vigilant as the healing process continues, even months after the event.

If kids can’t get back to their normal life, show unusual changes in their routines or give other signals they are struggling, seek professional help.

For additional advice, help and resources on parenting through a crisis situation, contact the Boys Town National Hotline at 1-800-448-3000. Trained counselors are available 24/7.

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