Talking to Your Kids
Traumatic events can have a powerful impact on children. Graphic images of natural disasters and terrorist activities can result in children feeling that their safety is threatened. When there is an interruption in the natural flow of life, a child can experience anxiety and fear. These are normal reactions.
Be calm and reassure children that they are safe. Children take their emotional cues from the significant adults in their lives. Explain that other adults in their lives are safe and that these are only temporary events that can be overcome. Explain that the firefighters, police, doctors, and the military are helping people who are hurt and are working to ensure that no future tragedies occur.
Let children know it’s normal to feel upset. Listen to what children tell you about their thoughts and feelings and don’t dismiss their fears. Encourage the children to talk about these feelings and help put them into perspective. Encourage your child’s physical, creative and artistic avenues of expression at this time.
Observe a child’s emotional state. Depending on their age, children may not express their concerns verbally. Children who at first hold back fear or grief may experience delayed stress symptoms later, such as reverting to outgrown childish behavior, sleeplessness, anxiety, nightmares, or even depression. These behaviors are only signs of the child’s anxiety, and your acceptance will reassure the child and shorten the duration of such behaviors. Children respond to praise, and parents should make a deliberate effort not to focus on the child’s immature behavior.
Tell children the truth. Don’t try to pretend the event has not occurred or that it is not serious. Children are smart and pick up on adults’ fears and anxieties without anyone saying a word. Their misconceptions often leave them very confused and they will be more worried if they think you are too afraid to tell them what is happening. Fantasized danger can be as real and threatening as actual danger to them. Be patient and do not belittle their fears, but listen with understanding, love and factual explanations.
Keep explanations appropriate for the child’s age. Elementary school-age children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that the daily structures of their lives will not change. Upper middle school and high school-age students will have more questions, and may have strong and various opinions about the causes of violence or inadequate preparation in schools and society. They will be more committed to doing something to help the victims and the affected community. Encourage all children to speak about their thoughts and feelings. Be a good listener!
Have the family spend more time together. Your physical presence will be reassuring and provide the opportunity to look for any reactions. Explain that when people know what to do and practice in advance, everyone can handle emergencies better. That’s why you created a family emergency plan together.
It is very important that you make a deliberate effort to get back to a routine. Engaging in “normal” activities of life, i.e., eating, sleeping, chores, school and work, provides stability at a time when events make life seem very confusing. If the family is evacuated, there will be a delay in a return to normal life. Participate in activities planned at the shelters or plan family activities at home. This will increase the morale of all. Try to treat shelter-at-home or evacuation as a positive thing or even a temporary adventure!