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Events like what happened Saturday in Stillwater can affect people for the rest of their lives in profound and unrealized ways, depending on how they and others around them handle it, said Claudia Arthrell, Family & Children’s Services director of professional services.

Police report a woman drove her car at high speed into a crowd of people – children and their families – assembled for Oklahoma State University’s homecoming parade. Four were killed, including a 2-year-old boy, dozens were injured and police arrested the driver, who was later charged with second-degree murder. Witnesses described seeing people flying through the air from the collision, an image seen by dozens of children and their families.

Mental health professionals understand trauma might affect children’s brains in lasting ways, such as greater difficulties concentrating and managing stress, or in manners similar to certain kinds of traumatic brain injuries, such as concussions.

Parenting can be the equalizer, Arthrell said. But how does a parent talk to his her child about what he or she has seen?

Perhaps a parent’s greatest fear is powerlessness to protect his or her children. We may not be able to protect our children from everything.

But Arthrell has some methods to help parents help their children cope when events defy explanation.

  1. Keep children grounded in the present. Try to divert their attention to current things that inspire positive feelings and emotions.
  1. Try to get them plenty of exercise, and avoid down time.
  1. Explain and reassure – offer physical comfort for younger children (hugs are good) and assurances you will do your best to help them understand what is happening.
  1. Encourage but don’t force your children to discuss their feelings. Talk regularly and often with them (that’s something you should do anyway).
  1. Provide simple, accurate information appropriate for your child’s age.
  1. Children crave structure. Maintain positive interactions with your children – play together, read together. Show them your relationship with them remains intact.
  1. Recognize the role other children play within and beyond your family. Communication between siblings and friends can help or hinder coping.
  1. Hold family meetings to keep lines of communication open and to reinforce the positives.  Meetings help combat the negatives.

It’s time to ask for professional help if, long after the event has passed, a child continues to refer to what happened, or shows greater fearfulness.

See below for parent resources helping children cope with violence and trauma.

“What Parents Can Do” – National Institute of Mental Health

“Information for Parents on Childhood Traumatic Grief” – National Child Traumatic Stress Network

“Age-Related Reactions to Traumatic Events” – National Child Traumatic Stress Network

“Helping Young Children Who Have Been Exposed to Trauma: For Families and Caregivers” – National Child Traumatic Stress Network