A pretty severe thunderstorm rolled across the Texas sky after my sons were tucked into bed last night. Since the crash of thunder and flashes of lightening are common for our area, my children tend to sleep peacefully through the storms. So I was very surprised to discover my youngest scared, out of bed and asking to stay close to me while the storm passed. As I was reassuring him that we were in no danger, it dawned on me that many children are feeling a little sensitive to events that seem outside their control these days – especially in light of the recent disasters in Alabama, Japan and the news stories about all that is happening in the Middle East.
Perhaps you are struggling with how to reconcile the grievous nature of recent disasters and feeling the emotional effects of the nightly news in your home. Finding the right words to say to your children following horrific events can leave many of us feeling tongue-tied.
You’re not alone in your struggle to explain the unexplainable. While we can’t control when bad things happen, we absolutely can control how we respond and communicate with our children. Research tells us that there are some simple things you can do to help your children process through traumatic events and help aid their emotional healing process.
Regardless of the topic, be open to a discussion as the situation calls for it. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be. Procrastinating on any difficult issue is ultimately a disservice to your children who are looking to you for information, comfort and help.
Create a Safe Place
Find a comfortable place for your conversation and elevate the position of your child. For example, you can sit on the floor while they sit in a chair. The space should be private so that the conversation is just between the two of you with minimal interruptions.
Avoid being critical or dismissive of questions and concerns. Keep the dialogue open and honest, and validate your child’s feelings.
Kids take their cues from you. When you react, they react. Be reassuring and provide simple honest answers. Reinforce that even in bad circumstances, we can trust God no matter what.
Be Sensitive to Emotions
After fear, the most common reactions among children to a catastrophic event are sadness and anger. Be aware that your child may show you their feelings through their actions in addition to the words they say.
Offer ideas to your child about how you can help. Find organizations offering aid, and help your child participate through volunteering or purchasing needed items during your next shopping trip.
While the nightly news may keep you well informed, the repeated images and news stories can make children feel like the events are happening over and over again. Limit exposure to media that repeats traumatic events in sound and pictures.
Still need a little help with your words? Check out these age specific tips from the smart folks at Sesame Street for what to say when your child is scared:
2 years or younger: Let your child know it’s okay to feel scared. Even more than words, young children need tangible reassurance. Try providing your child with a comfort item to hold on to, and keep her close at hand. Lots of hugs help, too!
3 to 5: “It’s OK to feel scared. Can you tell Mommy/Daddy why you’re scared? Mommy loves you, and I will be here to keep you safe.”
6 to 11: Start by asking your child what she already knows about what has happened and how she’s feeling, so you know how to address her particular concerns. Reassure her that it’s okay to be scared, but that she is safe and will be cared for.
For additional resources on how to effectively communicate to your children following a traumatic event, you can visit the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry or the New York Child Study Center.
Joy Bowen has a B.A. in Psychology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. As a part of the Orange Specialist team, she helps hundreds of churches implement 252 Basics and develop their family ministry strategy. She lives in Texas with her husband, two boys and a 95 pound Goldendoodle named Fozzy. You can follow her on her blog at impulsivejoy.com