Where did my friend go? That’s one of the hardest questions a parent can hear their child ask. Helping children cope with a traumatic death is one of those things we hope we never have to do. Family members, friends, educators or community members can help. Nurturing the children in our lives is a big and often difficult job. Sometimes that means that we have to learn skills to help them cope while we are coping with trauma ourselves.
That’s a hard job. It seems like when I turn on the tv, there’s something in the news that’s heart breaking. To help those with children have these difficult conversations, The Awesome Muse turned to Dr. Azmaira H. Maker. Dr. Maker is the author of Where Did My Friend Go? Helping Children Cope With A Traumatic Death. She shares suggestions on how to talk to children in a way that will help them better process loss.
Gun Violence, Terrorist Attacks, and School Shootings: Helping Children Cope With A Traumatic Death – A Guest Post by Azmaira H. Maker, Ph.D.
Explaining a traumatic death to young children can be a daunting experience for parents and educators. Young children struggle to cognitively and emotionally understand death per se, let alone a violent and shocking loss. Given the high number of school shootings (160+ school shootings), the increase in terrorist attacks, and the repeated images of war in the media, children are being exposed to traumatic deaths in multiple ways.
For example, just last week there were two significant shooting incidents in San Diego that many young children were exposed to. In one incident, a tenant opened fire at a community pool party in an apartment complex. In the other, a young high school student confronted the police with a BB gun and was shot in a what is now being described as a shooting suicide. The high school borders on an elementary school, and by the next day, the children were anxiously discussing the death at school and at home. Although parents try to shelter their children, kids are witnessing or hearing about the violence in classrooms and playgrounds, in the media, and through adult conversations.
Parents, teachers and caregivers can facilitate helping children cope
Parents, teachers, and other adult caregivers do their best to protect young children from traumatic deaths. However, this is no longer possible given the increasingly violent world we are living in. The best we can do is provide our children with a positive, clear, and simple framework to process, understand, and cope with the traumatic event. Helping children early in the process prevents the probability of symptom development, such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, anger, and other possible behavioral difficulties. Children have immature cognitive and emotional processing abilities; the more we can facilitate their coping skills, the better the children will fare in adaptability, resilience, and wellness.
How to talk with grieving children
Talking with children about grief and loss is difficult. Learn how to help them cope.Click to tweet
Here are some suggestions for broaching this difficult topic:
- We can explain the traumatic incident to children in simple, non-graphic facts. Kids know what happened. Keeping it a ‘secret’ or making up a story about it may only add confusion and mistrust.
- Kids may fear talking about it because it is a “secret or forbidden topic.” To create healthy dialogues, we can invite children to ask adults any questions they might have about what happened or about themselves and their loved ones.
- Children often worry, “will it happen to me? Can it happen at our school or in our neighborhood?” We can reassure and comfort children by telling them that this scary event is not an everyday occurrence, and that children are safe.
- We can use simple words and simple sentences that avoid hate, racism, and fear. Young children grasp issues better when it is explained in emotionally neutral, brief, and clear ways.
- We can tell children that this is a very sad event that should never have happened.
What else can we do?
- We can reinforce and tell children that the adults are working hard to keep all children safe – at home, at school, on the playground, and in the community.
- Turn our televisions off while children are in the room, and make sure adult conversations take place with only adults in the room.
- Help children mourn and grieve, and process their thoughts and feelings via books on loss, puppets, drawings, and stories. Children process through “displacement,” because it is safer to express thoughts and feelings in non-direct vs. direct ways. My new book, Where Did My Friend Go? Helping Children Cope With A Traumatic Death is an excellent tool for kids to understand and cope with a sudden and traumatic death.
- We can write letters, draw pictures, and send toys to children who have survived a traumatic incident. Giving back to others can be very healing for kids.
Early intervention and therapy tools
If your child has witnessed or been exposed to a traumatic death, you can make a difference in helping your child cope and heal. Early intervention is prevention, and the more you can facilitate a safe and reassuring dialogue, use therapeutic tools, such as Where Did My Friend Go?, and providing coping skills to minimize anxiety and distress, the more likely your child will fare well. Although we live in an increasingly violent world, we can continue to protect our children in helping them cope with trauma and loss in adaptive and effective ways.
About Azmaira Maker, Ph.D.
Azmaira Maker, Ph.D. is the author of the new book Where Did My Friend Go? Helping Children Cope With A Traumatic Death. She is a licensed clinical psychologist with expertise in trauma, loss, child development, parenting, and psychotherapy. Dr. Maker has over twenty years of experience working with children and families in hospitals, schools, clinical agencies, and non-profit organizations.
Where to find Where Did My Friend Go? Helping Children Cope With A Traumatic Death
You can find the book on Dr. Maker’s site, Aspiring Families.
You can also find Dr. Maker’s book on Amazon.
Further Reading on The Awesome Muse
If you enjoyed Dr. Maker’s article, you may also enjoy this post from The Awesome Muse writer, Kristen Wilson, addressing how to talk to other parents about whether they keep guns in their home before scheduling a play date.
If you need help coping with something yourself, particularly during the holidays, you may find these tips from Dr. Sanam Hafeez helpful.
If you are grieving a loss to suicide, you may find this article from Nancy Marshall comforting.