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When Tragedy Strikes: Helping Young People Cope

While events of mass violence have occurred with greater frequency in recent years, we know that the terrible attack against congregants at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg might resonate differently and feel a bit closer to home for some of our campers and their families.

In the past, we have shared resources with our camp families that could inform the inevitable conversations with our children that arise in wake of such tragedies. We reached out to our colleague and friend, Dr. Michael Thompson and his colleague Robert Evans, who shared the following advice for parents. We hope it is helpful to you as we navigate these challenging times. As always, we are with you and stand ready to be a resource to your family in good times and bad.

When Tragedy Strikes: Helping Young People Cope

Robert Evans, Ed.D.

A violent mass murder, such as at the Pittsburgh synagogue, can affect an entire school community. People feel shock, disbelief, and sorrow. Parents and teachers want to be helpful to students but also have to manage their own reactions. They can worry about saying too much or too little, about not having enough information, about saying the wrong thing. Though there is no perfect approach, here are four points that can help.

  1. Don’t over-assume what the tragedy means to young people. Adults often think, “If I’m this upset the kids must be even more upset.” This is by no means always true. Children and adolescents react differently depending on their closeness to the situation, their age, their own personality, and so on. Some may be very upset, others not. Some may have many questions, others none. Showing little reaction does not necessarily mean a student is hiding his or her feelings.
  2. Young people of all ages are remarkably resilient. Some may become quite upset at first, but given a chance to express what they feel, they usually recover. It almost never helps to keep asking them extensive, probing questions. It does help to respond to their questions, to listen when they want to talk, and to give them simple, direct information.
  3. If you receive a difficult question and you’re not sure how to answer, it is not usually helpful to invent something. You can say, “What made you think of that?” or “Can you tell me what you were thinking about?” Their response will make it easier for you to answer.
  4. You needn’t be perfect. There may be questions you can’t answer. It is OK to say, “I don’t know,” and to ask, ”What have you heard?” or, “Did you have an idea about that?” Sometimes, being honest with students will cause adults to become emotional. If you should become sad or even tearful when talking with students, this is alright. It doesn’t hurt students to know that adults care deeply about losses and tragedies.

In the end, adults will rarely go wrong by relying on what is most basic between them and students—caring and connection. At these times, your presence—just being with the kids, just being available to them, listening to them, sharing with them—can really help them cope.

Ds. Evans is a psychologist and the Executive Director of The Human Relations Service in Wellesley, Mass.