It seems each week brings a new and scary event that we need to help our children process. As parents, it is not always easy to know the best way to support and nurture our children during these frightening times. What should we say? How do we explain what has happened so our children will understand it yet still feel safe and secure?

There are many variables to keep in mind, such as age, personal experience, history of mental illness and even proximity to the tragedy, but there are some universal strategies. Here are my top five:

  1. Lay the Foundation for Good Communication Early and Often. Starting at a young age, make sure your child knows she can talk to you about anything – and follow through! Have proactive, nonjudgmental conversations with your children about difficult subjects like cheating in school, bullying and drinking. This makes it easier for your kids to bring up these issues with you on their own. Having practiced open and honest communication, when bad things happen your child will already be used to talking with you about her feelings, even the scary ones.

  2. Process Your Own Feelings First. Just as when flying you are instructed to put on your oxygen mask before your child’s, you need to process your own emotions before talking with your child. Reach out to family and friends, or even a professional, to ensure you can speak calmly about what has happened. Your job is to be a source of strength and validate your children’s emotions without overburdening them with your feelings.

  3. Encourage Your Child to Talk. Make sure you provide ample opportunities for your children to express their thoughts and feelings. Talk to them and normalize their feelings of distress. Your child may express her anger or sadness in ways that surprise you. A child might say, “I want to kill all the terrorists.” You want to convey there are no bad thoughts or feeling, and even though all feelings are valid, not all actions are.

  4. Reduce Exposure to Visual Media. The media sensationalizes news stories by showing graphic imagery over and over again in the aftermath of tragedy when adults are often glued to the TV. Unwittingly, children end up seeing a lot of negative images too. Studies show that such exposure can exacerbate stress, anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder. As much as possible, reduce your child’s exposure to news media. A way to counter any frightening images your child may have seen is to show them positive imagery of people doing good: firefighters and police helping at the scene, EMT’s providing aid, etc. This will provide balance and help them reclaim their feelings of safety.

  5. Stay Vigilant. During tough times, we must devote even more attention to our children. Spend more time with them, listen to them and keep them on their regular schedules. Routines are reassuring and serve to provide a non-verbal message that things are normal. Even weeks after something bad has happened, be on the lookout for signs of stress (i.e. acting out, nightmares, excessive clinginess, change in relationships, trouble in school). Sometimes children who initially seem unfazed may experience trauma later.

These strategies apply to all children, but it is important to understand that children of different ages have different needs. And although children may seem less impacted by tragic events, they are actually more vulnerable than adults since they have no context with which to understand what has happened.

Take for instance the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. For your preschooler, you want to control the message. Don’t assume just because they are young, they haven’t heard about what happened. Your job as a caretaker is to provide needed context (i.e. that this is not an everyday occurrence) and explain what steps are being taken to prevent it from happening again. Encourage preschoolers to talk about how they feel and have a one-sentence story prepared explaining what happened followed by how people are helping. For example, “A bad man wanted to hurt people, but teachers and police were there to help.”

For elementary and middle school kids, start by asking what they have already heard and how they feel. They will be hearing things from their friends and need your help to sort fact from fiction. “It is normal to feel scared when things like this happen, but it is important to remember that shootings are extremely rare and your school has lots of safety measures in place to make sure they don’t happen here.”

For teenagers too, begin by asking what they have heard and encourage them to share their feelings. But they will need more than just help processing their feelings. They may want to talk about issues like gun control, terrorism and mental illness, and what is being done in response. Tragic events can leave them feeling helpless, so it is useful to channel their energies into something that can make them feel empowered and tap into their natural inclination to focus on morality and social justice. Ask what we can do together to fix things. The March for Our Lives is a prime example of teenagers directing their post-tragedy energies into tangible action.

It is also important to note that depression and anxiety in teenagers can present as angry or defiant behavior and be dismissed as typical teenage rebellion or angst. During times of trauma, we must be especially watchful for how our teenagers are coping.

Above all, don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional for help if you find yourself overcome by anxiety or your child needs more help coping then you are able to provide. The waters may be tumultuous, but with the right tools we can all swim to shore safely.