Tips from Michelle Albright, PhD, Former Director of Youth Services
Keep the lines of communication open. The most important thing you can do for your children is to let them know you are willing and able to talk and listen. Talk to your children and let them know they can share feelings, and ask questions. However, don’t be surprised (or overly concerned!) if children initially don’t want to talk; not unlike adults, children sometimes need time to process what they are hearing and feeling. Rather than forcing a discussion, it’s best to let your children guide the conversation. As difficult as it may be for parents, children respect and respond best to the truth. Honesty is key, so give accurate and developmentally appropriate information about what has happened. And it’s okay to let children know when and if you don’t have an answer or want to wait and think or get more information before providing a response.
Let children know it’s okay to feel anything and everything. Children (and adults!) respond to grief and loss in many different ways with many different feelings. Acknowledge that normal responses to grief and loss include feeling upset, angry, numb, confused, and scared. Children learn how to cope with grief and loss from the people around them, and it’s appropriate to show emotion after losing a friend or family member. It’s okay to share your own feelings with your children as long as you can modulate them and they don’t overwhelm or overpower others.
Monitor your children’s reactions and your own. Grief affects our bodies as well as our minds, and children and adults may experience shifts in behavior, appetite, mood, sleep, and energy related to feelings of sadness and anxiety. Some individuals may have trouble sleeping, eating, or paying attention. Others may have headaches or stomachaches, or lose interest in things that are usually enjoyable. All of these are part of the normal experience of grieving. However be on the lookout for more abrupt and intense shifts in mood and behavior. And don’t ignore your own reactions because you are so concerned about your child’s.
Identify appropriate outlets and sources of support. Although there is no universal formula for coping with grief, most children and adults do find effective ways to deal with their feelings. However, no one can do it alone and we all need support from friends and family. Encourage children to express emotions in appropriate ways and seek comfort from their friends and other trusted adults.
Try to keep routines without being rigid. Normalcy and order are often comforting for children who have experienced an unexpected loss or tragedy. Try to keep to typical rituals and routines, however remain flexible in response to your children’s moods and behaviors. For example, if your child is having difficultly concentrating while trying to complete homework give them an extra break or the opportunity for some activity or exercise to vent some physical and emotional energy.
Be there for each other. Children of any and all ages need the comfort of parents when the world around them seems unsettled. You don’t need to hover or crowd, but do let your children know you are there and available for extra hugs, extra time, and extra care.
TALKING ABOUT TRAGEDY
The Massachusetts Children’s Trust Fund developed a very helpful resource on how to talk to children after tragic events that can be found here. This guide includes specific strategies and tools for parents on how to monitor children’s reactions and help in their dealing with feelings of stress, grief, and fear.
Harold Kopelwicz, a psychiatrist and president of the Child Mind Institute, shares some helpful guidelines for discussing frightening news with children, click here. And Child Mind has put together a guide for helping children cope with traumatic events, click here.
Richard Rende provides some helpful advice for monitoring media coverage of this tragedy, click here.
PBS Parents has some good strategies for talking and listening, as well as helpful information about how children process the news, click here.
Common Sense Media provides detailed guidelines on explaining the news to children at different ages and stages, click here.
Resources specific to suicide
The American Federation for Suicide Prevention's Toolkit for Schools includes specific language on how to discuss suicide as well as how to address risk factors.
The National Institute of Mental Health also has some helpful guidelines on risk factors for suicide and how to get help. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention/index.shtml as well as a fact sheet with common questions and answers
If your child is in crisis you can call 211 - a free health information and referral helpline that is avialable 24 hours a day, 7 days a week or the National Suicide Prevention LIfeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
General resources on grief and loss
▪ The Dougy Center provides support to children, teens, young adults and families grieving the loss of a friend or family member; they have two brief handouts on How to Help a Grieving Teen and How to Help a Grieving Child that parents may find particularly helpful.
▪ The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has a very brief brochure for families on how children may experience grief. http://www.aacap.org/App_Themes/AACAP/docs/facts_for_families/08_children_and_grief.pdf
▪ The National Association for School Psychologists has a wonderful guide on how to help children with special needs cope with a crisis. This guide includes specific strategies for children with Autism; Cognitive Limitations; Learning Disabilities; Visual, Hearing or Physical Limitations; and Emotional or Behavioral Disorders.
Michelle compiled a summary of the student survey results for Weston that you can access here. This document also includes some follow-up program plans and additional resources.
The Governor’s Prevention Partnership; A Parent’s Guide to Underage Drinking
The (CT) Governor’s Prevention Partnership has produced a fantastic guide for parents with myths and facts about substance use, commonly asked questions and answers, scenarios and responses, legal implications, and developmentally appropriate suggestions for children in elementary school through college. CLICK HERE to check it out.
The Partnership at Drugfree.org
The Partnership at Drugfree.org provides a wealth of information, tools and resources to help prevent and get help for drug and alcohol abuse by teens and young adults. CLICKHERE to visit their site which is subdivided into sections for “prevent,” “intervene,” “get treatment,” and “recover” and includes a Parent Toolkit with practical advice for guiding your child toward a healthy life at every age. CLICK HERE to visit their linked site called “A Parent’s Guide to the Teen Brain” that is amazing and includes videos, interactive segments, scenario-based role-playing experiences, expert advice, and practical tips.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration - SAMHSA
SAMHSA has launched a great campaign called "Talk. They Hear You." which aims to reduce underage drinking among youth ages 9 to 15 by increasing parents’ awareness of the prevalence and risk of underage drinking and equipping parents with the knowledge, skills, and strategies to prevent underage drinking. CLICK HERE for the main website which includes a series of PSA’s for parents and children to view together, as well as a range of resources including tip sheets on how to answer children’s questions about alcohol and how to tell if your child might be using alcohol, as well as sample family agreements regarding use of alcohol. SAMHSA also launched a public education initiative called “Too Smart To Start” that has information specifically targeted for pre-teens, teens, and parents, and includes a wealth of information such as games, fact sheets, conversation starters, and tips sheets. CLICK HERE to check it out
The National Institute on Drug Abuse - NIDA
NIDA has two websites that provide a ton of information about how drugs affect the brain and body. Their teen site aims to educate adolescents ages 11 through 15 (as well as their parents and teachers) on the science behind drug abuse and includes animated illustrations, quizzes, and games. CLICK HERE to check out the kid site and CLICK HERE for the parent/educator site.
Talking with Teens is a website sponsored by the Office of Adolescent Health and the US Department of Health and Human Services. It includes conversation starters, “teen scenes,” and actual questions and sample responses with corresponding resource links for all sorts of topics such as puberty, substance use, and digital responsibility. CLICK HERE for the main site
MEDIA AND TECHNOLOGY
General information on technology on teens
The Pew Research Center has some interesting data on how teens use and perceive technology; findings from research in conjunction with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard are available including reports on social media use and perceptions of privacy. Click here to view some of their findings.
Common Sense Media (http://www.commonsensemedia.org/) provides reviews of movies, apps, and games, as well as guidelines for parents and educators more to help people make informed decisions about children’s media exposure and technology use. Click here to view a succinct tip sheet on digital privacy. They also have fabulous lessons that include discussion questions and video clips – Click hereto view one on sexting and Click hereto view one on privacy
The Child Mind Institute The Child Mind Institute aims to identify the most effective treatments for childhood psychiatric and learning disorders, build the science of healthy brain development, and empower children and their families with help, hope, and answers. They maintain a fabulous website that highlights hot topics and you can sign up for an e-newsletter. They have several informative articles on children’s media use - Click here for an overview of how to talk to kids about pornography and sexting , and Click here for an overview of how media exposure impacts children self-esteem.
Great resources for kids
MTV has partnered with several organizations (including the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women) on two online campaigns that encourage kids to be more thoughtful (and ultimately responsible and respectful) about their media use and online identities.
A Thin Line (http://www.athinline.org/) was developed to empower kids to identify, respond to, and stop the spread of digital abuse in their life and amongst their peers. The campaign is built on the understanding that there's a "thin line" between what may begin as a harmless joke and something that could end up having a serious impact on you or someone else. On-air, online and on your cell, they aim hope to spark a conversation and deliver information that helps kids draw their own digital line.
That’s not cool (http://www.thatsnotcool.com/) That's Not Cool is a national public education campaign that uses digital examples of controlling, pressuring, and threatening behavior to raise awareness about and prevent teen dating abuse. It is based on the premise that your cell phone, IM, and online profile are all digital extensions of who you are. When someone you're with pressures or disrespects you in those places, that's not cool. That's Not Cool provides tools to help you draw your digital line about what is, or is not, okay in your relationships.