Skip to main content

When terrible things happen: Helping children heal

By Pat Etheridge, Special to CNN
updated 2:36 PM EST, Mon December 17, 2012
A mother hugs her children after paying tribute to the victims in Newtown, Connecticut, on Saturday.
A mother hugs her children after paying tribute to the victims in Newtown, Connecticut, on Saturday.
  • Adults must find some support for themselves, experts say
  • It's key for children to know their parents can protect them
  • Parents' response should vary by the age of a child
  • Behavior such as bed-wetting or sleep disturbances can signal a problem

Editor's note: Former CNN correspondent Pat Etheridge is a journalist specializing in children's health and family issues. She previously hosted CNN's "Parenting Today."

(CNN) -- The anguish is unimaginable. In the midst of their own loss, grief-stricken parents in Newtown, Connecticut, now struggle for ways to comfort their children: What to say? How to react? What to watch for in the child?

"The first thing adults need to do is find some reinforcement for themselves because the best people to help these children are the people who take care of them in their daily lives, especially parents," says Dr. Lewis Leavitt, professor emeritus of pediatrics at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"The analogy I use is one you hear on an airplane: Put the mask on yourself first, so you can then attend to your child," says Dr. John B. Lochridge, an Atlanta-based child and family psychiatrist. "After that, it is minute by minute, case by case. It's really a matter of listening and responding in a way that fits the framework of their understanding."

Civic and church groups as well as individual counselors and pediatricians can offer crucial support for parents. "The divorce rate is incredibly high following the death of a child, especially a tragic death. One of the most important things you can do is focus on communicating with your spouse and getting the help you need to keep the family unit intact," Lochridge says.

Should you discuss shootings with kids?
Helping children to cope
Trauma and school massacre survivors
Mom: Teacher saved son from bullets
Channeling grief into change in Newtown

"It's key for children to know that their parents are there for them, can protect them, and that they are safe," says Leavitt, also author of "When Terrible Things Happen," a booklet for parents released shortly after September 11, 2001.

To help kids with tragedy, slow down, listen

Children have different emotional needs than adults. Also, at different ages and stages of development, they react in different ways. Leavitt and Lochridge offer age-specific advice for children directly affected -- or indirectly traumatized by exposure through conversation or media.

Infants and toddlers (0-3 years)

Infants and toddlers cannot comprehend how a tragedy might change their environment. But they can recognize and respond to changes in adult behavior. What they need most after a loss is their parents' loving care. Focus on the familiar and resume normal activities. "The games you played and the stories you read before are still appropriate afterwards," advises Leavitt.

Preschool children (3-5 years)

Preschoolers may not talk about their feelings even when asked. They require reassurance from parents and family members about their care and safety. Playing music or doing arts and crafts may help children open up.

It's best to respond with answers that are simple and direct. For example, if your child asks, "Do people wake up after they die?" You could answer, "People do not wake up after they die, but it's OK to think about people we like even when they are not with us anymore." Also, it is important to avoid television viewing. "Young children may think a disaster is happening again and again if they see repeated images," cautions Lochridge.

School shooting: Shattering the sense of safety

School-age children (5-12 years)

Children at this stage have more interest and understanding of how and why things happen. Parents can help by talking, listening and answering their questions. Honest, direct responses coupled with reassurance are best.

For instance, if your child asks, "Mom, are you sad?" You could say, "I'm sad about what happened, but I'm happy we are together." Again, it is best to limit TV or watch together and discuss what has happened. School-age children benefit by returning to their normal activities and routines.

Behavior to watch

Changes in your child's behavior may signal anxiety. Contact a health professional if problems such as these persist more than a few weeks:

-- Preschoolers: bedwetting, thumb-sucking or increased clinginess

-- School-age children: sleep disturbances, nightmares, poor concentration, aches and pains

-- Teenagers: expressions of anger or sadness, problems with eating and sleeping, loss of interest in activities, new difficulties at school


For children under stress after a traumatic event, various forms of therapy can help, including art.

"Anything that's available -- clay, crayons, music -- children can use to express themselves," says Susan Anderson, founder of the ArtReach Foundation. Her nonprofit group was on the ground in Tuzla, Bosnia, following a massacre that killed 71 -- many of them schoolchildren.

"This is a time when we are at a loss for words. Parents should understand and share with their children that sometimes, there is no simply explanation," Lochridge offers.

"In an event of this scope, it's important for parents, police, even the president to convey that this is a terrible but rare event and our institutions are there to keep them safe," says Leavitt.

He suggests creating opportunities that enable youngsters to look "beyond the memorials for the lost children -- which are important -- to more long-term activities that aim for solutions and a secure future."

So what of the magic of Christmas in Newtown? The magic is not lost, says Leavitt. "Part of that magic is exactly what will help these children heal: togetherness, unity and the spirit of goodness in the world."

Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:30 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Though Congress hasn't passed any gun reform laws in the two years since the Sandy Hook massacre, there's one senator who's made it his mission to push for changes.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Sun November 23, 2014
Adam Lanza was an isolated young man with deteriorating mental health and a fascination for mass violence, according to a report released by a Connecticut state agency.
updated 10:58 AM EST, Sat December 14, 2013
Horror struck Newtown, Connecticut, in such a disturbing way that the nation still struggles with its impact a year later.
updated 7:20 AM EDT, Sat June 8, 2013
Fifty miles from Newtown, workers hate that their products fall into the wrong hand. But the Second Amendment is sacred here.
Rabbi Shaul Praver says people in Newtown have grown weary of syrupy condolences.
updated 7:18 AM EDT, Sat June 8, 2013
Congress may have defeated tighter gun laws, but states have been passing bills of their own in the wake of Newtown
Details continue to emerge about what precisely happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Here is a timeline of events that compiles the latest reporting.
An interactive tribute to the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
updated 1:12 AM EDT, Sat May 25, 2013
The public school district will receive $1.3 million to help the community recover from the , U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced.
updated 9:53 AM EDT, Fri March 29, 2013
Police released new documents related to the shootings last year at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, but a motive for the attack by the troubled young man remained elusive.
updated 11:26 AM EST, Tue January 15, 2013
His parents remember Dylan Hockley as such a happy child.
updated 10:17 AM EST, Wed December 19, 2012
Amid the chaos that first-responder Ray Corbo witnessed on Friday, there is one image that he will never forget.
updated 10:02 AM EST, Thu December 20, 2012
In many ways, Josh Stepakoff's childhood came to an abrupt halt at 10:49 a.m. on August 10, 1999.
updated 9:40 AM EST, Thu December 20, 2012
When Lauren Rousseau's boyfriend wakes up, he can smell her perfume.
updated 10:30 AM EST, Tue December 18, 2012
Placing yourself in the path of flying bullets to protect innocents. It's a job description fitting for a soldier or police officer, but not for a school teacher.