The impact of recent terrorist acts in Europe and the Middle East extends far beyond the population directly impacted.   The expanding presence and accessibility of both broadcast and social media has transformed local tragedies into collective experiences.  Such experiences can have a negative impact on physical and mental health and leave us wondering how to cope and how to help our children cope.   Traumatic events affect different people in different ways.  Some people become anxious, sad or numb while others may be angry or withdrawn.  It is important to know that whatever you are feeling – it is a normal response to an abnormal situation.

Below are some tips for coping with trauma and helping children and loved ones cope:

Coping with Traumatic Events

1.  Drink Water – acute stress can cause dehydration.  This is a simple thing to do to take care of your body at a very basic level.  It is also especially important to eat regular and healthy meals. 

2.  Keep a regular routine.  Stay busy, go to work or school, avoid cancelling appointments or social engagements. 

3.  Limit broadcast and social media exposure – research has shown that prolonged engagement with media following a terrorist attack can lead to ruminating, distorted threat appraisal and increased activation of fear circuitry in the brain.   

4.  Talk about what you are feeling and validate your feelings – remember, there is no right or wrong way to feel.  Some emotions take time to emerge and process after a traumatic event.  Be patient with your own healing process. 

5.  Reach out to family, friends and clergy for support and connection.   

6.  Take care of your body.   Get as much physical activity as possible.  Exercise, get fresh air or learn relaxation techniques in order to relax and feel rejuvenated. 

7.  Get involved in something that is personally meaningful.  This can take many forms; it may or may not be related to the specific event. It is important to find time to connect with others and be part of your community.  Many people find volunteering, giving blood, giving back in some way brings healing and serves as a reminder that there is still good in the world.

Helping your Children Cope with Traumatic Events

1.  Be the one to tell them.  If an event is flooding social and broadcast media, your children will hear about it.  Tell them the facts in an age appropriate way and avoid focusing on the details that may worsen their anxiety. 

2.  Respect what your child is saying – if he/she does not seem worried or interested don’t give him/her something to worry about. 

3.  Keep the routine as normal as possible – this includes meals, school, bedtime etc.  

4.  Be calm – your children will be looking to you to make sense of what happened.  Demonstrate it’s okay to be sad when bad or scary things happen and model how to move forward while grieving.   

5.  Reassure them – children often become very frightened something bad like this will happen to them.  Listen to their fears and reassure them that these events are very unusual and that there are adults working hard to try and prevent them from happening again. 

6.  Keep the conversation open – encourage your child to come to you with any questions or if he/she hears something from a peer or the internet that is frightening. 

7.  Limit repetitive exposure to broadcast and social media – this is the same for children as it is for adults.  Prolonged exposure can be re-traumatizing and worsen anxiety. 

8.  Help them find meaning – volunteer, create a memorial, plant a tree or garden, say a prayer.  Doing something for others helps children feel better about themselves and may give them a sense of closure.

It is normal for traumatic events to affect and upset our lives.   Sometimes, however, these events can spiral into something more serious. If you or someone you know is having trouble dealing with a tragic event, don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Warning signs may include:

  • an inability to take care of yourself or your children
  • an inability to go to work or keep appointments
  • increased drug or alcohol use, excessive time on the internet or technology
  • continuing to ruminate or have anxious or depressed thoughts 2 weeks after the event
  • thoughts of suicide

When terrorist acts and other national tragedies such as a mass shootings occur, they dominate the media.  We need to be aware of the possible psychological wounds that can develop during these times and address this in practical ways.

About the Author

Dena Tranen

Dena Tranen, LCSW

Dena is a graduate of The George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.   She began her career as a clinical social worker at the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA.  While at McLean she received advance training in DBT (Dialectal Behavior Therapy), MBT (Mentalization Based Treatment) and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).  She has extensive experience in diagnosing and treating personality disorders and trauma-related disorders.

Dena believes in using evidence-based therapies and offers comprehensive assessment and treatment for a wide range of mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders and substance abuse.  She is known for her direct and interactive approach to therapy. She believes change and growth are possible and sees family members and school staff as important allies in this process.

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