, Salem, MA

April 17, 2013

10 ways to help children cope during a crisis

Dr. Kate's Parent Rap
Dr. Kate Roberts

---- — The Boston tragedies leave all of us feeling helpless. If we are safe and survived the events of Monday without direct loss or injury, or exposure, we feel grateful. As parents, we must stay calm and centered, despite our strong emotions. We must remind ourselves that life is positive, that people are trustworthy and that our existence depends on being open and available for living.

Parents, I know your children are your first priority. Here are 10 ways to help children cope during a crisis.

1. Take care of yourselves, parents. You are the No. 1 resource for your children, and therefore, you need to be centered, despite the craziness of the world around you. Process your feelings with other adults, and allow your time with your children to be focused on taking care of them right now.

2. Limit access and exposure to TV, social media and “suggestible” discussions. Children do not take in graphic information or sensationalist pictures like parents do. They are impressionable and will have difficulty managing the images in their minds after they have seen them.

3. Be aware that many of us are in the “flight or fight” mode in the wake of this horrific tragedy. The calmer, more centered you as a parent can be, the easier it will be get your child out of this mode and back to baseline.

4. Listen, be patient, and tolerate children’s irrational thoughts and fears, without indulging them. Here’s an example of what you might say to your child: “I know it’s scary, and it feels like it’s going to be us next. ... And it’s not.” Children’s anxiety is irrational, so try not to address it rationally. Talk about how life will continue to happen the way you plan it every day.

5. Stay away from discussion or analysis about why things happened. Focus more on how you and your children can do things to make the world a better place. It’s true that you may not be able to help the victims of yesterday’s event directly, but you can help sick people at your local hospital or help those in need in other ways that show the world is a positive, good place. Encouraging your children to help others allows them to feel empowered that they can “do” something.

6. Watch for changes in your children’s behavior. Signs of moodiness, nightmares, sleep and eating disturbances can indicate that your child is in “fright mode.” Watch for increased anxiety in reaction to more immediate life issues (upcoming tests, exams, performances). Take these signs seriously and attempt to address them by offering more support through extra time together, and by offering more reassurance. If that does not help calm the symptoms, pursue outside consultation with your pediatrician.

7. Help children remain in their routines and/or return them to routine as soon as possible. Getting them to engage fully in their busy, active daily lives will distract them from the tragedy and remind them of what is good in their own lives.

8. Know and believe that everyone, even children and teens, is resilient and do overcome stress and the aftermath of a crisis to return to baseline.

9. It is normal for kids to feel upset, sad, confused or afraid after something bad happens; let your child know it’s OK to have these feelings and that they pass. If kids can’t get back to baseline or show difficulty adjusting to their routine and normal life, seek professional help.

10. Again, take care of yourselves, parents — your children need you to!


Dr. Kate Roberts is a psychologist and parent coach; her focus is helping parents help their children. She welcomes questions at or Follow her on Twitter @DrKateParenting.