After Sea World Tragedy, Helping Kids Cope

The tragic events at SeaWorld on Wednesday, where trainer Dawn Brancheau was pulled into a tank by a killer whale and drowned, may have shocked many, but few more so than those who saw it in person.

With a multitude of protections in place for parents to keep children from observing violence, whether ratings systems on movies, television or video games, it is seldom that children with protective parents see the most shocking displays of violence in any form, let alone the events that unfolded on Wednesday. It no doubt left many parents wondering about the effects of such an occurrence.

Psychological experts say that how the child reacts will depend in large part on their age. Younger children may not realize what occurred or why, while older children will be thinking about a range of consequences beyond the event itself, explained Dr. Eugene Beresin, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Mental Health and Media .

"A 5-year-old who does not appreciate the finality of death, or understand that killer whales may do this for a number of reasons, such as fear, irritation, hunger, et cetera, may not understand why this happened," he said. "Younger children need to feel that they are safe. They need to know that while this is a terrible thing, it will not happen to them, even when they go to the beach or swim in a lake. They need reassurance that their parents will keep them as safe as possible."

Beresin said the situation may be different with older children.

"A 15-year-old on the other hand, may have a much broader understanding of animal behavior, motivation, et cetera," said Beresin. "Older kids may have different concerns: what about this person's relatives? Was she married? Did she have kids? What does this mean about the whale? Will it be killed in response to such an event. So, older teens appreciate much more of the content and consequences of the behavior."

Lines of Communication

But parents can't assume what their children are feeling, Beresin said. They need to ask.

"Opening a dialogue is really important," he said. "This allows the child to express his or her concerns and gives the parent an opportunity to make a meaningful response that is clearly addressing the concerns of the child."

In listening, it is important for parents not to try to do too much immediately, said Dr. John Walkup, deputy director of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

"Listening to what your child is thinking is much, much better than adults talking and trying to influence the child's experience of the event," he said. "Listening also doesn't mean asking a million questions. Rather it is an attitude that communicates to the child that the parent/adult wants to understand what the child is feeling. Keep it simple not long drawn out discussions."

Walkup also noted that children may have surprising reactions to traumatic events.

"It is possible that many young children wouldn't experience the violent gravity of the situation and have no real emotional reaction," he said. "This is not a problem at all. Sit tight and be open for your child to talk more later or not at all. Even to me it sounds unreal and some kids may have unreal reactions such as it is funny. Parents should try to understand what the child saw and how they understand it before offering any correction."

In addition to brevity, Walkup says honesty is important too.

"If you are not sure what to say, say that...[It is] better than getting didactic. Teaching lessons about the fragility of life is for another day."

The effects of events like this can stick around for a while, and parents need to watch for a few things, explained Judith Myers-Walls, a child and family psychologist at Purdue University.

"Some children may be afraid of water or the ocean or animals in general," she said. "Others might not want to go out of the house because of general fears. It may be necessary to provide special help if the fears or concerns start to interfere with the children's normal daily activities. A few nightmares, reluctance to swim for a couple of times, or wanting to sleep with the parents for a few nights are normal reactions."

Some parents need to seek the aid of a professional.

"If the children have difficulty functioning or if the initial fears seem to last for a long time, it is time to get more help," said Myers-Walls.

PTSD Not Likely An Issue

Fortunately, it doesn't seem post-traumatic stress disorder is a likely effect of this event, explained Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement and a psychiatrist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is more likely to develop in individuals, including children, if they perceived at the time of the event that their own life, or that of someone they personally care about, was in jeopardy," he said. "While I don't know the specific circumstances of the event at Sea World, it may be that few if any children or their family members were in harm's way during the episode."

The concern would be that children are poor evaluators of risk, and here communication becomes important.

"One thing to keep in mind, though, is that it is the perception of risk that is most important," said Schonfeld. "Especially young children may not be accurate in their perceptions at the time of a critical event and therefore it will be important to ask children what they were worried about at the time of the event, as well as what worries or concerns they may still have.