Traumatic events like 9/11 and
hurricanes have taught experts how to guide parents to be prepared to respond to crises in ways that help their children be resilient.
Listening is an important way for parents to express love and acceptance and to help children figure out dilemmas. In the context of crises, listening takes on another vital role. Because children react to crises differently, we must look for clues from them about what they know, how they interpret the events, and what they need from the adults around them. After the hugs, ask children what they understand about what has happened and what questions or concerns they have. Listen for any potential misunderstandings.
It is common for children to have fears based on limited information or from not understanding what they were told about the event. You must first listen to their concerns so you can frame your discussion about the situation appropriately and spare them frightening or unnecessary details. When they finish talking, ask them how they are doing and how you can be helpful to them.
Helping Them Express Fears & Worries
Just asking children what they understand or how they feel may not be enough to get them to voice their feelings. Sometimes simply sitting with them while they draw a picture or play with their toys will help them find a way to communicate what they're feeling, even if they are not fully aware of it themselves.
- Young children may need your help to find the words to express what they are feeling. Offer them words to choose from by telling them it's normal to feel sad, upset, or confused. Be a good role model by sharing how you are feeling and explaining what you are doing to help yourself feel better. Encourage them to express feelings through play, drawing, storytelling, or other creative activities.
Older children & adolescents
- Older children and adolescents might find it easier to talk about what others think.
"My friend Monica said that she just keeps following her mom around to make sure they never get separated. Isn't she a freak?" When this occurs, don't remove the mask by saying,
"I'll bet you're really feeling this too." Instead, talk about what Monica must be feeling and how it is understandable. Ask your child what Monica's mom could do to make her feel more secure. Encourage older children to ask questions and share feelings. Answer their questions with calm, age-appropriate responses and don't belittle their emotions.
Never force your child to talk
Some children will act as if they aren't bothered at all. They don't seem particularly interested in or moved by the event. If so, there's no reason to push them to express anything at this time. Never force your children to talk, but tell them you are there to listen. Your children may be deeply moved or upset but actually need a sense of normalcy. Model that your own way of gaining comfort is by talking about the situation. Let your children see you talking to other adults and observe your relief as you connect with others. Leave the door open for future conversations. They may happen at any time.
Dealing with Mixed Emotions
It is common for people, young and old, to have a mixture of anger and confusion in the face of disaster. Which emotion dominates may have to do with the nature of the disaster.
- With terrorism, it's typical to ask,
"How could people be so cruel?" and have justified anger.
- With natural disasters, we are often more confused about how to vent anger. Many adults as well as older children turn it inward—"We could have prepared better," or
"I am being punished."
- Others may express anger outwardly or have a crisis of faith—"How could our government fail to protect us?" or
"How could a loving God do this to us?"
Wherever that anger and confusion is directed, our first response is to listen, not to deny it or try to talk kids out of it.
What to Say
Our ability to communicate that we feel safe through our body language and tone may be more important than our exact words. In the face of a crisis, gather the family in the part of your home where you spend good times together, or take a walk to a favorite spot that will remind children of comfort. You may want to begin the conversation with everyone present to feel more secure when you are all together. Depending on your children's age and developmental level, more in-depth conversations might occur with just one child and one or both parents.
More than anything else, adults must be honest about what has happened. Sadly, this is not the kind of truth that we can protect our children from, but the truth doesn't need to include every horrid detail. How much detail to share will depend on their ability to understand.
- Very young children will need simple, concrete explanations of what happened and how it affects them. If they have a gross misunderstanding of events, correct them. But if they explain the story in a way that implies,
"It's all over now, the bad guys are all dead, and this happened very far away," do not correct them or add more nuanced details. Their simple explanations may be exactly what they need to believe to feel safe. Don't take away that sense of security they're constructing for themselves.
Older children & adolescents
- Older children will likely ask for and benefit from additional information about the disaster and recovery efforts.
Saying you don't know is OK
Don't worry about saying the perfect words. Nothing we can say in these circumstances will make everything better. In fact, there's a reasonable chance that adult conversation may upset children further, but keep in mind that it is the situation that is upsetting them, not our talking about it. Don't feel obligated to give a reason for what happened. It's OK to say you don't know why something so terrible has happened.
Reinforce your child is safe
As we try to explain tragic events, the main goal is to reinforce that you and your children are safe. If it isn't clear that you are yet safe, don't lie. Focus instead on the steps you are taking to become safer. If you can, point out things like the distance you are from the event or the fact that police, soldiers, and rescue workers are working hard to make sure everyone is safe. Don't overwhelm children with information, but give them honest and brief explanations of what happened and what is being done in response.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network suggests telling children exactly how the disaster affects their family, school, and community. They may be worried about the safety of their friends or extended family. Be honest if you really don't know, but reassure them that their friends' parents are taking care of them, just like you are taking care of your children. You might tell them about how the government is working hard to restore electricity, phones, water, and gas or how city workers will take care of cleaning up the wreckage and help families find housing.
If your family has been directly involved in an
act of terror, war, or a natural disaster, you will have spent weeks or months—hopefully with adequate support—in recovering your lives. If your family has been on the periphery of these crises but have been witnesses via the media, you will still need time to restore some emotional balance. During these periods, a few small things can help children.
Get back to old routines
As soon as reasonably possible, try to follow old routines because they provide comfort and a familiar structure to a child's daily life. For example, get her back in school and do not cancel
celebrations like birthday parties or after-school activities that she enjoys. Follow as normal a schedule as possible. Even if you are at a shelter, you can still maintain some family rituals like singing the same songs or reciting the same stories before
bedtime. Try to maintain household rules and discipline routines, but be aware that changes in behavior may be a result of fears or insecurities that can be alleviated through repeated reassurances and extra attention. It's OK to let your children be more dependent on you in the aftermath of a traumatic event. Children may be more distracted and have trouble concentrating on schoolwork. Be patient and give them gentle reminders and extra help if needed. Children may be more anxious when separating from parents for bedtime or when parents need to leave for work or an appointment. Give yourself extra time to cuddle and talk to your children before separating from them.
Remember that your children's world revolves around you and your home. Any disruption to your normal family activities will be felt by your children. Things that may seem trivial to you, like watching television, playing on the computer, or having friends over, are important to your children and will be seen as tremendous losses if they are disrupted. Be patient and help children think of alternative activities if their normal toys aren't available or if their regular activities are cancelled. Provide plenty of opportunities for play.
Review your family's disaster preparedness plan
Another way to encourage a child's sense of control is to review your own family's
preparedness plan together. Coming up with a family plan in case a disaster directly affects you next time (or strikes again) can help increase your family's sense of security.
Find ways to help others
Finally, provide your children with
opportunities to help others. Children cope better and recover sooner when they help others because it creates a sense of control and helps children feel better about themselves. By helping those affected by the tragedy or honoring those who died, children can regain a sense of control over a tragedy that often makes them feel helpless.
Limit Exposure to the Media
monitor and limit your children's exposure to the news. As compelling as it may be during a disaster, news coverage is often overwhelming because today's 24-hour news cycle replays dramatic footage day after day. This barrage can sear images into the mind and increase trauma.
All of the major child-serving organizations suggest for you to shield your children entirely (depending on their age) or limit the time they spend viewing media related to the incident. Even indirect disaster exposure from media (eg, newspaper, television, internet, radio) can be detrimental. It can cause kids to worry that something similar might happen to them. It may change the way they view the world; they may begin to see it as a threatening, scary place. It is important for parents to limit media exposure in general and to explain in words they understand what they do see and hear. Be honest, but spare kids unnecessary or frightening details.
While children benefit from basic information about what happened, it can be harmful for them to see graphic images or sounds. Try to encourage realistic messages of hope and optimism. Point out some of the positives of the trauma, like how people help each other or how heroes risk their own lives for others. Even in the most difficult situation, your positive outlook on the future will help your children see good things in the world around them, helping them through challenging times.
Children rely on us so heavily to figure out how to interpret dire events that we need to be aware of the many different ways they learn from us and other adults. They listen to our words, notice the level of stress that our bodies communicate, watch whether we follow routines, and see whether we change our tone or attitude when we talk to others. If we cannot maintain a consistent air of calm with friends or other adults, we should have those conversations in private, away from children, and preferably without children knowing that adults are speaking secretly, which will only raise their anxiety and undercut the sense of security we're trying to communicate.
Unfortunately, we cannot protect our children from trauma related to natural disasters, wars, or terrorism. However, the way we respond and the support we offer can help buffer the potential negative consequences of experiencing a traumatic event and can make it more likely that our children bounce back. The bottom line for parents is to remain calm and to remind children they are loved and that you are doing everything you can to keep them safe. Feeling secure and connected to parents, family members, teachers, friends, or community is the greatest protections children have and affects their recovery immediately after a disaster and well into the future. With a strong support system in place, you will be able to minimize negative beliefs, calm fears, restore some normalcy and pull together as a family so you all will bounce back, and perhaps even grow, from harrowing and unpredictable events.