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Supporting family mental health after a tragedy

Learn to help your kids grieve and process the unthinkable

By Jill Chappell

As if parenting during a pandemic wasn’t already challenging enough, the emotional toll of the mass shooting in Nova Scotia has placed an even greater responsibility on parents to manage their family’s mental health.
“When something happens that threatens us, it changes our lives,” says Dr. Alexa Bagnell, Associate Chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the IWK Health Centre.

Parents should emphasize that it’s normal to feel sad, shocked, and angry, and to cry when things of this magnitude take place. Teaching them that bad things can happen to good people, but that this type of thing is incredibly rare, is a good place to start.

“Reassure them that they are safe,” says Dr. Stan Kutcher, a Senator and children’s psychiatrist. “That you, your family, their friends and pets are safe. Clarify the level of probability. One out of 36 million people and once in over 155 years. This promotes cognitive processing. Reframe the discussion to the heroes of the event: the police officer and people who died trying to save others.”

It’s also important to find out what they know and answer their questions. Be as honest as possible while keeping it age appropriate, suggests Bagnell. Limit time on media and don’t speculate about what happened.
The tragedy directly impacted many young people. It’s important to take time to mourn. Some are grieving the loss of a parent, a teacher, a classmate, or a friend. If your child knew someone who died, join in the remembrance activities underway, express feelings and pay tribute. We may not be able to protect our children from the reality of this unthinkable violence, but we can listen, even if we’re supposed to be on a work call.

“Take the time to listen,” says Kutcher. “Ask what they have heard about and ask how they are feeling. Then validate their feelings. It’s okay to share how you’re feeling too. It’s also essential to correct false information.”
Experts suggest keeping your schedule, and your children’s schedule, as normal as possible. Do your best to adapt and master your emotions, even if it feels forced.

“The more routine, the more normalcy in the house, the safer they’re going to feel,” says Bagnell. “‘My parents got this. They’re upset about something but they’ve got this.’”

“It’s normal for your child to experience sleep disturbances, crying spells, clingy behaviour, stomach/headaches, irritability, bad dreams or anger,” says Kutcher. “If these issues persist longer than about four weeks it may be time to reach out for mental health care. For the older kids, teens are at risk of turning to substances or having suicidal thoughts. If you notice these signs, it’s time to seek mental health care.”

At the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia we are huge proponents of self-care. Foundation President and CEO, Starr Cunningham, emphasizes that self-care is not selfish.

It’s anything but selfish,” says Cunningham. “It’s vitally important during the best of times, but even more so now. We all need to remind ourselves that simple things like a good night’s sleep, physical activity, healthy food and taking time to do those things we enjoy make us not only stronger people, but stronger parents.”

Make it a priority to schedule time to laugh, talk to friends, and involve the kids in joint or family activities that interest to everyone. It’s also an ideal time to focus conversations on the positives of the day. Children may not understand the full impact of practicing gratitude, but they can certainly tell you what makes them happy and what they are thankful for.
There are many free mental health resources available online and over the phone. As proud supporters of Kids Help Phone, the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia encourages children and youth to connect with trained experts by dialing 1-800-668-6868.

You can also find other accessible resources on our website at, including a listing of free e-mental health tools now being offered by the Nova Scotia Health Authority Mental Health & Addictions Program.

Stay safe and stay connected. We will get through this (both parents and children), together.

Jill Chappell is the marketing and communications lead for the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia.

Read more from our Summer 2020 edition of Our Children.

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