Children are much more resilient than we tend to give them credit for. In the face of personal tragedy, simple supports, structure, and assurances go a long way toward helping children recover. Events that cause children distress include the death of a family member, friend, or classmate; an accident that disables them or others close to them; and damage to their home or belongings by natural disaster.
In response to tragic events, children sometimes conclude, “The world is not safe” or “People can’t be trusted.” These thoughts are normal, and most children resolve them over time. However, parents can do several things to ensure that the eroding effects of personal tragedy don’t linger.
- Return to daily routines as quickly as possible. Reestablish a sense of safety and trust, and don’t let difficult circumstances become an excuse for ignoring bedtime and meal routines or for neglecting rules about behavior.
- Don’t share your most intense grief, anger, or anxious reactions with your children. Limiting their exposure to your intense emotional reactions is beneficial.
- Make the most of social supports. Friendships and family ties are extremely important at these times. Do what you can to strengthen your children’s relationships with others. They should spend more time, not less, with their social support network during the months following a personal tragedy.
- Teach children how to lean on their faith. Personal tragedies often raise the big questions of life. What happens to us after we die? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why are we here? Gifted children, given their cognitive maturity, sensitivity, and heightened awareness of spiritual or moral issues, may verbalize these questions at younger ages than other children. Parents don’t have to pretend to have all the answers, but they should validate their children’s curiosity and acknowledge that these are valuable questions to ask. Parents who follow specific spiritual or religious practices can help their children cope with personal tragedy by teaching them how to apply and rely on their faith.
- Get professional help when needed. Children who persist in believing that the world is unsafe and that people can’t be trusted may need more than just reassurance from family and friends. Parents whose children have ongoing difficulty with relationships and with moving out into the world, or continue to be withdrawn, agitated, or aggressive long after tragic events, should seek professional counseling.
Personal tragedy does not necessarily do permanent harm to children. On the contrary, mastery of stressful situations can serve as a type of inoculation against trauma. The experience of surviving what once seemed unendurable can provide a shield of confidence and self-esteem that protects against stressors in life, building a child’s optimism about the future.
—Maureen Neihart, PsyD
Maureen Neihart is a clinical child psychologist in private practice. She has over 20 years of experience working with gifted children and their families.