Supporting Kids and Loved Ones in the Wake of Recent Tragedy

Healthy coping is important following a traumatic event

October 13, 2023

Immediately following a violent event, the number one priority is to save lives and treat the physical wounds of the victims.

But in the days and weeks following the event, as those physical wounds begin to heal, we must be cognizant of the psychological wounds that, while invisible, can be equally as damaging.

In the period following a tragedy, many people affected by a tragic event will experience great challenges. From survivors to bystanders to emergency room physicians, there are many who don’t yet know the emotional toll these events will take on them.

Drawing from the advice of experts in trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression, McLean Hospital has developed these tips to support coping with trauma. We hope that in these difficult times, this information can serve as a guide for those who may wonder if what they are feeling is normal.

Keep Reading To Learn

  • How to practice self-care following a traumatic event
  • Advice on how to help children cope
  • Signs that a person should seek professional help

Coping With Trauma

Traumatic events affect everyone differently. People may feel anxious, sad, or even numb.

For survivors, first responders, and those who have witnessed violent or disturbing events—whether in person or in the media—acute psychological stress is extremely common.

However you’re feeling, know that you are reacting normally to what is undoubtedly an abnormal situation.

After traumatic events, some people may experience loss of appetite, insomnia, and recurring thoughts about what happened or upsetting things that they saw. These emotions and symptoms may show up right away or after some time has passed, so it is important to give yourself time to process these emotions and begin healing.

While some amount of disruption is to be expected after a traumatic event, taking good care of yourself and your family can be crucial to ensuring that things don’t spiral into something more serious.

It is important to:

  • Get enough sleep
  • Stay busy and keep to your regular routine, if possible
  • Eat regularly and healthily
  • Stay hydrated—acute stress causes dehydration
  • Get exercise and fresh air
  • Reach out to your support network of family, friends, clergy, and physicians
  • Limit television coverage of the tragedy, access to gruesome photos, or anything connected to violence

Mental Health Screenings

Mental health conditions—such as depression and anxiety—are real, common, and treatable. Answer questions to determine whether you are experiencing symptoms.

Helping Children Cope

It can be difficult to explain tragic events to children, particularly when we don’t fully understand them ourselves. Here are some tips for explaining traumatic events to your child:

  • While it’s OK to show emotion, avoid appearing overly anxious or frightened, as children will be looking to you for reassurance
  • Explain that there are good people like firefighters, rescue workers, police, etc., helping to make sure that they are safe
  • Take your cue from the child—if they don’t seem concerned, don’t give them a reason to be
  • Be cautious about sharing more than what a child or teen needs to hear to avoid upsetting them
  • Keep young people away from the television as reliving an experience over and over again can re-traumatize them or worsen their anxiety
  • Don’t force kids or teens to talk if they don’t want to, but make sure that they know they can come to you with any questions and concerns that may arise

Here are some additional resources for talking to children about traumatic events:

Complicating Factors

Some people are at greater risk than others for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and generalized anxiety following a traumatic event. The following factors may contribute to the development of longer-term psychiatric issues:

  • Proximity to the event
  • Existing medical conditions or psychological disorders
  • History of trauma, including childhood trauma
  • Similarity of the event in relation to past trauma (e.g., a 9/11 survivor experiencing flashbacks following another terrorist attack)
Child lying on lap

When To Seek Help

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, stress can be too much to handle alone. Be sure to ask for help if you:

  • Are unable to take care of yourself or your children
  • Are unable to go to work/school or perform your job
  • Are using alcohol or drugs to escape
  • Feel sad or depressed for more than two weeks
  • Are having suicidal thoughts

If you or someone you know is having trouble dealing with a tragedy, don’t be afraid to ask for help:

  • Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional
  • Reach out to a community organization, such as the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1.800.273.TALK

If you or a loved one are suicidal or are a danger to yourself or others, please call 911 or visit your nearest emergency room immediately.

More Resources

You may find this additional information helpful:

Members of the media who are interested in speaking with a McLean expert should contact Media Affairs.