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Helping kids (and adults) cope with traumatic events

OHSU Doernbecher child psychiatrist offers tips for coping, resilience amid unrest, uncertainty
An adult and an adolescent sit on the floor of a living room. They appear to be engaged in a serious conversation.
Taking children's worries seriously and providing reassurance can help create resilience in families. (Getty Images)

We are in the middle of a pandemic, severe social unrest and profound division at the very moment we need unity in our country. Rates of depression and anxiety are escalating as many Americans struggle to cope with a list of profoundly troubling challenges to meeting their basic needs (e.g., housing, food etc) along with the toxic division in our society.

Resilience and coping are highly influenced by secure relationships where trust and the ability to consider one another’s perspective are key. As individuals, we have limited ability to change what is happening on a national level, but we do have the ability to create resilience in our family and in our social circles. Our children need this from us as they take cues about safety and the future from parents and caregivers. 

  • Sending cues of stability start with finding that in yourself.  You will find great information about everything from challenges with food and housing to parenting,  mental health and addictions on the Oregon Health Authority’s Safe + Strong website
  • Specific support for parents by other parents may be found at the Reach Out Oregon website, created by the Oregon Family Support Network.

These online resources include options for talking to people about your questions, needs and urgent concerns. 

Some specific tips for parents coping with difficult events: 

  • Think about the values that you want for your children. When you speak with them about difficult things, bring these values to the conversation. Universal values like kindness, good listening to others, respectful communication, using words instead of violence, being truthful, imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes and taking a pause when upset before taking action are some examples of what might flow out of events we have recently witnessed. What starts out as opportunities to talk about emotions can then move to things we can control ourselves. Every child’s reaction is unique to his or her personality, developmental stage and experiences. Create a sense of openness to discussion, but avoid pressuring children to talk.
  • Help adolescents think about how to use social media with a cautious and thoughtful eye. Encourage them to be critical of what they read before assuming it is true.
  • Take children’s worries seriously. Restate what they have asked you first so they know you heard them. Avoid statements like, “don’t worry about that” and ask what they saw or heard and their thoughts or feeling about it. Then provide reassurance that seems appropriate by explaining what is happening briefly but focusing on how you are keeping the family safe.
  • Pivot from completed conversations about stressful news to something that is routine and reassuring. This could be making food together, working on an art project or going out in nature. Looking at worms in the dirt, watching birds or taking a close look at plants and how they feel or smell is a great way to feel a sense of normalcy and reassurance that life goes on for small children – and for all of us!
  • Get yourself and your kids moving. Take a walk, go for a hike, just move (and remember to wear a mask when you can’t maintain physical distancing – it still feels good out there)!
  • Monitor screentime to make sure children are not overly exposed. News reports are too fast for kids to absorb. In addition, children process this type of information much differently than adults and think of the personal impacts more often than adults do.
  • Monitor your own exposure to the news. Your news feeds, shows and social media feeds are designed to stimulate your fear centers. This keeps you on the feed so you consume more content. As your brain gets stimulated your emotions sink into anxiety or anger, your body is exposed to stress hormones that cause inflammation and may lead to further psychological and physical illness. You may pass this onto your kids by interacting with them in a distracted, tense and not fully present manner. Kids have a radar for this and may in turn become anxious themselves!      
  • It’s OK to proactively talk to your kids about these events as they will likely hear about them later. Be sure to provide limited detail and highlight the rarity of such occurrences. However, experts think that children who are preschool age and younger do not need to be provided with details of these events unless they ask.
  • Encourage kids to talk about how they are feeling and respond to those concerns.
  • Remember that loving and supportive relationships can protect against anxiety. Reinforce those relationships and remind kids how families help protect children.

Look for signs that a child is struggling to cope with their emotions. For young children, this includes an increased fear of separation, regression of skills (bed-wetting, not wanting to dress themselves), hyperactivity or anger. For older children, signs include increased isolation, irritability and seeming withdrawn or uninterested in school and friends. If you see these issues, talk to your child and seek assistance if necessary.

Parents strive to make the world as safe as possible for their children. The convergence of recent awful events has felt very overwhelming, partly because we do not feel a sense of control and the impacts are real. While we can’t control natural disasters, violence and the pandemic on a large scale, we can control how we express love and compassion on a daily basis in our families and in daily moments with others.  We can help our children center themselves with what is personally important, and we can find reassurance through secure relationships with others.   


Ajit Jetmalani M.D.

Ajit Jetmalani, M.D., is the Joseph Professor of psychiatry and head of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, OHSU School of Medicine.

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