Helping Children to Cope with Disaster

We all struggle to deal with tragic and terrible events such as the shooting spree at Virginia Tech on April 16. It is especially important to be aware of how children may be affected by such violent realities. As catechists, we can provide comfort, reassurance and stability.

The shooting at Virginia Tech will be the “Columbine” for the children we are teaching. Witnessing television reports about such violent events can result in fear and confusion. The sudden and unexpected nature of a tragedy such as this can cause high anxiety and even panic. The truth is, children are most fearful when they do not understand what is happening around them. Feelings of confusion, fear, and anxiety should be considered normal.

Helping those we teach to deal with their reactions to this tragedy can be challenging for us as catechists since we may not have had enough time to deal with our own feeling and reaction. Here are some strategies for giving children the support they need in the wake of this violent tragedy.

  • Encourage younger children to seek physical comfort from their parents and relatives. Hugs and hand-holding from parents can provide children with the comfort and security that they need.
  • Provide reassuring and appropriate smiles without being glib.
  • Reassure your children that you are there to take care of them and that they are safe in your company.
  • Express your own feelings of confusion, sadness, and fear but do so in a way that shows you are relying on prayer and faith to cope during moments that you don’t understand.
  • Provide structure for your students. Children find security in consistency, especially when faced with such an unpredictable disaster. Reliance and traditional prayers and forms of prayer such as the Rosary can provide great comfort for children.
  • Emphasize familiar routines and ritual.
  • Play some soothing music as they work and speak in a slow, calm, quiet voice.
  • Invite (but do not pressure) children to talk about the disaster. This gives them a sense of control and can help them to sort out their feelings.
  • Provide a little more time than usual for children to relax and do some activity that is therapeutic such as coloring or playing with modeling clay. Older children can be engaged in physical activities (a game) that provide some emotional release.
  • Children feel powerless in the wake of an unpredictable and violent tragedy such as the Virginia Tech shootings. Be sure to talk about and model peaceful resolutions to conflict as a way of giving children a sense of control in difficult situations.
  • Some children react to such tragedies by behaving aggressively. Emphasize the need to find and use alternatives to violence as a way to solve conflicts.
  • Keep your perspective and avoid expressing anger and vindictive emotions about the perpetrator of this violence. Help the children to avoid making inappropriate assumptions about the perpetrator by using labels based on ethnicity, religious background, etc.
  • Children may show signs of stress following a tragedy such as this. Keep an eye open for changes in behavior. Very young children may resort to thumbsucking, clinging, and isolation from other children. Older children may show signs of irritability, aggression, lack of focus, and other changes in behavior. All of this is natural as they process their anxiety and fear so show patience with them.
  • Pray together for the victims, their families, for those who were injured, for the college community, and for all those who were involved in responding to the crisis.

Inspired by and Adapted from “When Disaster Strikes: Helping Young Children Cope” by Jane M. Farish –an NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) brochure.

What strategies and advice do you have to offer to help catechists talk to children about this tragedy? (it will be most helpful if you can cite sources from professional agencies such as I did above).

About Joe Paprocki 2742 Articles
Joe Paprocki, DMin, is National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press, where, in addition to his traveling/speaking responsibilities, he works on the development team for faith formation curriculum resources including Finding God: Our Response to God’s Gifts and God’s Gift: Reconciliation and Eucharist. Joe has more than 35 years of experience in ministry and has presented keynotes, presentations, and workshops in more than 100 dioceses in North America. Joe is a frequent presenter at national conferences including the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, the Mid-Atlantic Congress, and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership. He is the author of numerous books, including the best seller The Catechist’s Toolbox, A Church on the Move, Under the Influence of Jesus, and Called to Be Catholic—a bilingual, foundational supplemental program that helps young people know their faith and grow in their relationship with God. Joe is also the series editor for the Effective Catechetical Leader and blogs about his experiences in faith formation at


  1. Joe, what a wonderful service you have provided for us, Thank you. I will share this with the catechists so they can and will know how to speak about this event with the children.
    Thank you again, and Easter Peace!!!
    Sr. Constance
    Visitation Parish

  2. Thank you! I will share this with my catechists. I am sure that it will come up during class time. This gives them some ideas on how to handle such a tragedy.

    Thank you,

    Divine Providence Parish
    Westchester, IL

  3. Joe,
    I knew I could turn to you and this website for assistance!……Unfortunately, the website associated with our text series didn’t have anything related to Virginia Tech tragedy.
    Thank you!


  4. Chris and Kevin, thanks for the feedback. I’m glad that I could be of help. Unless our faith tradition can speak to such events, kids will see religion as irrelevant. We need to equip them with what they need to live with faith in the real world.

  5. Thanks, Joe!

    I am forwarding this to all of our catechists with encouragement for them to share with families. One of our area high schools was locked down last week with a bomb scare/evidence of materials that fit the recipe for a bomb. Not only does this take more breath away it alerts all of us to the need to stop and be more aware of each other’s neeeds especially in the aftermath of a crisis. Terry

  6. Terry, I’m glad you found this helpful What an unfortunate incident to have to cope with (the bomb scare) on the heels of the already unfortunate tragedy at V.T. I hope your catechists find this helpful.

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