Responding to the Spokane high school tragedy

September 20, 2017 Providence Health Team

How to talk to your children about tragic events

Tragic events may be especially difficult for children to talk about and understand. Providence child psychologist, Kevin Heid PhD, offers guiding principles to support family and community discussions.

Need help talking to your kids about tragic events?

  • Start by asking what they’ve already heard.
  • Provide straightforward, accurate information, but avoid graphic details or over-exposure to media.
  • Start the discussion early and follow up often to make sure they are coping well.

A Spokane area high school suffered an unspeakable tragedy earlier this month when four students were injured and one student killed by a fellow classmate armed with guns. Area schools were placed on lockdown during the incident, leaving many young students fearful and confused.

Parents and caregivers have the difficult task of helping our children understand, as best they can, what happened. This task is not made easier by sensationalized newscasts that provide distressing or even graphic imagery.

How to start the conversation

We sat down with Providence child psychologist, Kevin Heid, PhD, to discuss the best way to talk to children about these events. Children need to understand the facts but do not need to be frightened by too much, or perhaps, unnecessary information. He offered five guiding principles to support family and community discussions:

  1. Be available. You may need to drop what you are doing when your child approaches you with a desire to talk.
  2. Listen. It is important to listen without the need to respond. You don’t have to know what to say; let them know they are safe and you value what they have to say. Be attentive and stay calm.
  3. Ask. Seek to understand from their perspective. Listen and ask questions that help them communicate their thoughts and feelings.
  4. Validate. Validate your child’s thoughts and feelings without judgment or challenge. Let them know their thoughts or feelings are understandable and normal.
  5. Be vigilant. Check in regularly. Inquire how your child is doing. Watch for any signs or symptoms of ongoing depression or anxiety.

Signs a child may not be coping well with an unusual event

Like adults, children experience feelings of helplessness and lack of control following a tragedy. However, unlike adults they lack the experience to help them cope with the situation. Oftentimes, despite our best efforts, a child may need additional support to help them cope in a healthy way.  If you notice signs that a child may not be coping well after a tragic event or natural catastrophe, the child and adolescent psychiatrists at Providence can help. Here are a few warning signs to keep in mind:

  • Trouble sleeping
    Be aware of changes in your child’s sleep patterns. They may experience difficulties with falling asleep or staying asleep, difficulty waking or nightmares.
  • Physical and emotional changes
    Physical changes like headaches and fatigue or changes in eating patterns are red flags for depression, anxiety or fear.
  • Behavioral changes
    Be mindful of drastic or sudden changes in behavior like aggression or withdraw from social interaction.

We understand how difficult it can be to talk about tragedies, but knowing where to start can make all the difference. If you are concerned about a child that may not be coping or reacting well to an unusual event, we encourage you to reach out to your primary care provider or our dedicated child psychologists at Providence for additional support. Our programs are developmentally age-appropriate and flexible. We focus on the individual and work with parents and caregivers to build effective problem-solving approaches.

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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