Talking to Children After a Disaster
This week’s tragedy in Boston was felt around the world, as all of us as humans try to understand how vulnerable we are to random acts of violence. People immediately unite to support, serve and comfort victims and their families.
It is difficult for adults to understand and process thoughts and feelings after man-made and natural disasters. Imagine how much more difficult this can be for children. And parents, foster parents, social workers, teachers and therapists are often pressed to answer questions to some difficult questions.
At various developmental stages, children are influenced more significantly by the thoughts and opinions of others. The reactions of adults set the tone for how children react to these types of national tragedies.
The following tips are taken from the US Department of Health and Human Services: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Center for Mental Health Services (www.samshsa.gov)
How to Help
Reassurance is the key to helping children through a traumatic time. Very young children need a lot of cuddling, as well as verbal support. Answer questions about theevent honestly, but do not dwell on frightening details or allow the subject to dominate family or classroom time indefinitely.Encourage children of all ages to express emotions through conversation, writing, or artwork and to find a way to help others who were affected by the event. Try to maintain a normal household or classroom routine, and encourage childrent o participate in recreational activity. Temporarily reduce your expectations about performance in school or at home, perhaps by substituting less demanding responsibilities for normal chores. Acknowledge that you, too, may have reactions associated with the traumatic event, and take steps to promote your own physical and emotional healing.
Tips for Talking to Children After a Traumatic Event
- Provide children with opportunities to talk about what they are seeing on television and to ask questions.
- Do not be afraid to admit that you cannot answer all of their questions.
- Answer questions at a level the child can understand.
- Provide ongoing opportunities for children to talk. They probably will have more questions as time goes on.
- Use this as an opportunity to establish a family emergency plan. Feeling that there is something you can do may be very comforting to both children and adults.
- Allow children to discuss other fears and concerns about unrelated issues. This is a good opportunity to explore these issues also.
- Monitor children’s television watching. Some parents may wish to limit their child’s exposure to graphic or troubling scenes. To the extent possible, be present when your child is watching news coverage of the event. It is at these times that questions might arise.
- Help children understand that there are no bad emotions and that a wide range of reactions is normal. Encourage children to express their feelings to adults (including teachers and parents) who can help them understand their sometimes strong and troubling emotions.
- Be careful not to scapegoat or generalize about any particular cultural or ethnic group. Try not to focus on blame.
- In addition to the tragic actions they see, help children identify good things, such as heroic actions, families who unite and share support, and the assistance offered by people throughout the communities.
In our next post, we’ll talk about next steps when talking isn’t enough. In the meantime, reach out for help if you know a child who is struggling with his or her feelings and anxiety after this or other tragedies.