Well-Being//

Finding a Way Forward When the Tragic News Feels Unbearable

A psychologist gives concrete tips for healing after horrific events, and helping kids cope as well.

Courtesy of  MicroStockHub / Getty Images 

Horrific events impact everyone. The swaths of communities in close proximity to the incident, the individuals directly exposed to the tragedy and a vast number of additional people who are brought near by watching from afar.

When confronted with harsh news and adversity, adults navigate a complex mix of shock, sadness, anger, disbelief, guilt and fear. Children ask tough questions. Parents wonder if they should protect them from the grim reality or explore the topic. A nation mourns unbearable loss. It can feel impossible to summon up or remember that we have the capacity to cope, adjust, recover, heal and hope following an onslaught of unspeakable heartbreaking acts. But it is possible, albeit in the midst of surviving terrible pain. I have seen it and know it to be true, that the other side of trauma can be resilience. What does it take?

The following are strategies you can implement to manage tough times for yourself and help the children in your care push forward, engage in life and ultimately thrive.

Things that help children:

  • Return to the familiar: Routines and structure are calming. Going back to usual activities, seeing that some things remain the same, knowing that everything did not fall apart, and that life will continue is reassuring.

  • Communicate: Listen first. Talking about and discussing events requires knowing your child’s specific questions and concerns. You can correct misinformation, address worries, monitor rumors and hate, teach tolerance. Open the door for communication, look for chances and be available for more than one conversation.

  • Be honest: Use language and details that fit your child’s age and style. Knowledge is power and decreases your child’s use of imagination to fill in the blanks for all they see and hear. Establish yourself as a trusted source of information, even for an “I don’t know” answer to tough questions.

  • Validate feelings: Dismissing fears is confusing, discussing them gives you an opportunity to understand your child’s experience and tailor problem solving strategies.

  • Encourage expression: Play, art, music, and writing can speak volumes and provides a natural outlet for emotions not accessible, or too chaotic, to put into words. Address harmful or hurtful expression and acting out by talking talk through alternatives.

  • Model coping: Children look to the adults for how to cope. They learn how to treat people and what is acceptable by seeing what it looks like. Expressing your feelings in healthy ways teaches them it’s OK to have them and demonstrates how to manage them.

  • Tend to your own backyard: Children focus on their immediate environment and life. Review safety plans, how you take care of each other, where the resources are and who are the helpers.

Things that help everyone:

  • Connect: Don’t go it alone. Vigils, rituals and ceremonies provide uplifting ways to be together and experience the humanity of others who understand and share a common experience. Or it might feel right to connect privately with trusted family, friends, spiritual leaders, or professionals. Ask for help, as a gift to yourself, with burdensome chores or troubling emotions. Reach out, access, and engage a larger circle of support for you and any children.

  • Practice self-care: Pay attention to your own needs and honor them by caring for your mind and body; eating, sleeping, being outdoors, exercising, doing hobbies, reading, listening to music, meditating, doing things that bring joy and renew the spirit.

  • Show compassion, provide comfort: Be gentle, patient, and accepting of your own emotions and reactions as well as those of others. A hug, a hand on a shoulder, a shared laugh can provide a vital moment of relief or encouragement. Focus on gratitude, whatever reminds you of what and who fulfills and grounds you in what is still good and possible.

  • Take control: We can quickly catastrophize, feeling everything is awful and out of our control. The antidote is to take back control, no matter how small. Recognize the positive choices you can make to reclaim your life.

  • Use media sense: Gaining perspective requires being proactive and taking a break from news. Steady exposure to details can crowd out and compete for your attention. You need normalizing, positive news and real life experiences. For young children, it can be especially confusing to see disturbing images repeated and for young and old alike they can trigger more fear.

  • Find the good, be the good: Action counters feeling paralyzed and contributes to a sense of community and change for the better. Cope using kindness, reach out a hand, offer help, care for others today, tomorrow, the next day and the next. Being part of a larger cause devoted to change can be empowering. Small acts from a simple word or compassionate act towards a stranger, family member or neighbor, provides immediate results. Find meaning in the experience to inform and enhance your future.

  • It takes time: You may require more time or help than someone else. Reactions ebb and flow. Waves of despair can suddenly appear or past emotions can be unexpectedly triggered after finally feeling on firmer ground. Past experiences, other life stresses, shifting past and present circumstances, will influence your personal path to health and healing. Adjustment evolves as tragedy is integrated as part of you rather than all of you.

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