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Talking to Children With Special Needs about Tragedy

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Your child turns on the TV looking for cartoons, and instead sees images of terror, destruction, buses blown apart, buildings tumbling. The front page of the paper shows people fallen from gunshot wounds, twisted wreckage from car crashes, children injured by man or nature. We wish we could protect our children from tragedy and fear -- our children with special needs in particular, who have enough tragedy of their own -- but with media coverage becoming ever more immediate, it's virtually impossible to shield our little ones from every word, every image, every rumor and warning.

How can we possibly explain the world we live in to kids who can't even understand the basics of living? There's no easy way, and every child will require a personalized approach, but here are five things to keep in mind.

#1: Talk to your child at his or her developmental age, not chronological age.

If your child has developmental delays, that will impact his or her understanding of traumatic events and emotional reaction to them, too. Follow your child's lead to provide just the information that's being asked for. If your child has problems with abstract concepts and complex language, he or she will probably need things to be explained in as simple and straightforward way as possible, without details and language that will make things more confusing and anxiety-producing.

#2: Maintain your routine.

Kids with special needs cling to routine, and a disruption of that -- whether because your family is actually disrupted by the tragedy, or because family life is revolving around televised coverage of it -- may be more traumatic than the event itself. If your normal routine is unavoidably altered by what has happened, create a new one that gives your child as many familiar touchstones as possible. Otherwise, keep life as normal as possible for your child, making a little time each day for discussion or for Web sites like FEMA for Kids that address disaster in a non-threatening way.

#3: Keep your emotional equilibrium.

Dealing with tragedy and terror is hard on parents, too. You may be reeling, but what your child needs from you more than anything else is to be calm and in control. If your child sees you upset, or obsessed with watching unfolding events on TV, or angry and unsettled, he or she is likely to feel emotional and unsettled, too. Although it may be hard, try to limit the time you spend talking, thinking, and worrying about the events, and give that extra attention to your child. Try some of these ways to give your child a little extra love and reassurance.

#4: Expect some acting out.

Often, when children with special needs explode in intense periods of misbehavior, it's hard to tell what's causing all that acting up. In the case of a disaster, terrorist attack or other traumatic event, however, you don't have to guess. Give your child a little extra understanding and latitude during these times, step up supports, reduce expectations, and choose your battles with additional care. And don't allow your own out-of-control feelings to impact your interactions with your child. It would be nice if kids could suppress their special needs in times of national tragedy so that adults could get with the business of mourning, but it just doesn't work that way.

#5: Offer concrete solutions to abstract problems.

There may not be anything you can do about disasters or tragedies outside your own local area, but there are things you can do to make your family safer. Kids who are upset by current events may find comfort in doing something very concrete and immediate, so use this opportunity to put together a family survival kit, using resources like the Family Readiness Kit from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Discuss escape routes, gather supplies, make sure smoke alarms work, practice evacuations. In addition to making your child feel safer and more in control, these strategies offer one small way to take something good from a very bad thing.


Read More About It

The following sites have additional suggestions for helping children with special needs cope with terrorism and trauma:

Coping with Crisis -- Helping Children with Special Needs
"Tips for School Personnel and Parents" from the National Association of School Psychologists.

Helping Children with Developmental Disabilities Cope with Traumatic Events
Suggestions from the NYU Child Study Center.

Helping Kids with Learning Difficulties Cope With Loss
Suggestions from Great Schools


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