When tragedy strikes, children may reach out with questions or begin to experience emotions that require responsive, caring, and thoughtful approaches to their concern for safety and security. Tragedy leaves many people (including adults) feeling helpless and searching for meaning in a situation that is scary and unpredictable.
Here are some supportive ideas to guide meaningful discussion:
Encourage discussion by offering a safe place to share feelings.
• Validate a child’s emotions and thank them for sharing. Say something like, “Thank you for telling me you are feeling sad. I see you are really upset. I am sad too.”
• Encourage the child’s ability to share, and give tools to help understand feelings and promote healing. Encourage children to journal, use creative art, or practice traditional coping skills (deep breathing, yoga, or physical movement).
• Be aware of changes in behavior that may require us to provide extra attention or affection. Traumatic events may leave children feeling scared and reminding them there are supportive, caring individuals who are consistently present and willing to invest their time can help helpful for the healing process. Keep routines as consistent as possible, but take time to invest in a little more attention by connecting through collaborative play.
Activities to support children after traumatic events:
• Offer ways for children to help. Stress can derive from a feeling of helplessness. Find opportunities for children to contribute by writing letters of gratitude to first responders, collecting needed items for donating to help, or write letters to individuals who may be injured.
• Discuss and role-play the work of emergency responders. This provides an opportunity to discuss how there are people who work to prevent and protect us from harm.
• Influence children by teaching acceptance, tolerance, and kindness. The children can work together to create a classroom culture that influences the behavior of others. Chart ideas of how they can work together to be respectful toward each other and be a positive influence in the classroom, their home, and in the community.
• It can also be helpful to point out the people who are showing care and kindness during traumatic events. To show the many people who do good in the world can greatly outweigh the one individual who caused pain and disruption.
During times of trauma it is important to be in tune with children’s behavior and reactions. Redirect strong emotions to healthy ways to cope. Consider the age of the child when responding to questions and concerns. Be in tune with your own emotions so that you know when to take a break from tough conversations to avoid adding additional stress through an emotional response. You aren’t expected to have all of the answers to difficult questions and sometimes the answer is, “I don’t know.” Also, encourage families to turn off media updates for a time and spend time reconnecting children to play experiences, reading stories together, or just snuggling on the couch.
Celestte Dills, MEd