How to help your child in a crisis
It’s tough being a parent sometimes isn’t it? It’s especially tough when we want to protect our children from the harshness of some of the things that happen in the world that we live in. We don’t want their innocence lost when there is tragedy and heartache. Here are some thoughts to help you as you lead your child through…
So how can we help children through difficult tragedies?
It’s important that we don’t forget that children aren’t just mini adults who can digest and process verbal information like we can but they also listen and hear way more than we would like to think is possible and process it slowly and often get the complete wrong end of the stick.
So how do we help them? How do we avoid them becoming traumatised by what happened? How do we cope with their emotions? How do we manage our own emotions around them?
- Be as normal as possible and stick to routines to help them feel safe.
- Do recognize the children’s non verbal responses to traumatic experiences, such as being clingy or irritable or anxious or fighting more as a natural response to trauma and say something like, ‘I can see that you seem to be a bit clingy/irritable/worried/quieter/cross and I wonder if you need some time to chat/ time with mummy or daddy/ want to ask me anything/ feel like you are worried about anything?’ This enables them to recognize that they have a need that they may not have known about and helps them understand what they need.
- Do expect that the way children respond can be physiological and behavioural and can bypass their logical brain. They don’t know why they change behaviour patterns so don’t ask them! They could start to wet the bed or be aggressive or daydream more. They could also start to bite their nails, change their eating behaviours, cry more, struggle with sleep, feel very tired, want warm milk again or have nightmares. This is just their subconscious responding to the experience with a survival response, which is not logical or cognitive and so needs to be met with reassurance and kindness rather than reason and logic and then the new behaviours should soon reduce again.
- Do expect them to spontaneously ask questions or respond when there seems to be no reason, and when things seem to have returned to normal. The way that children process means that sometimes it’s easier for them to ignore their strong feelings until they feel safe enough to reflect and wonder about what happened. Be ready at anytime to give them time and space to explore their feelings around what happened.
- Do give the children reassurance in the way that best suits your child- usually hugs, time to read and chat over a hot chocolate, bedtime stories, quieter times with them where they can ask you anything. Make sure there is time for them even if they seem ‘normal’, but avoid being too ‘over intense’ as they will feel a bit odd and pressure can lead to them clamming up.
- Do create a relaxed and unpressured environment where they can ask questions but don’t force them.
- Do watch their reactions to things and when you see them respond in a way that is different from before the accident, use that as an opportunity to reflect that to them; ‘I wonder if you are worried about anything?’ Don’t be surprised or upset if they then tell you that their big worry is about having sausages for lunch rather than the tragedy. Children’s thoughts and feelings can jump from really serious issues to what we think are silly issues and view them as equally important!
- Do validate their emotions. Its ok to feel cross, sad, angry or upset.
- Don’t change the subject if the tragedy is mentioned and don’t avoid answering questions as this will lead to the children bottling in their emotions and questions, which could lead to anxiety. Your answer can be ‘I’m not really sure but we could think about that couldn’t we?” or ‘Sometimes I don’t know answers to really big questions but I do know that I love you and I will try my best…’ This gives permission to the children to ask questions and gives permission to be ok about not knowing answers to everything. This facilitates a healthy response to tragedy and develops a trusting relationship with you.
- Don’t talk about the event, your feelings or air your thoughts when you think toddlers or children aren’t listening. They are often listening even when they look engaged in play and can get quite confused about what happened or what will happen and this can lead to illogical fears and phobias. If they do overhear anything, take time to explain to them what they heard in ways that are helpful to them.
- Don’t allow your emotions to be completely unregulated (for example continually cry all the time for days) as the children will become overwhelmed and distressed. They will rarely tell you that they feel overwhelmed because of your response, but will begin to express their anxiety through behaviours such as aggression or anxiety. They need you to be an adult and be available to care for them.
- Don’t hide your own emotions completely either. It is healthy for the children to see you cry and explain that you feel sad, or express your concern fro your friends and suggest you make a cake. If they see you express an emotion and name it and then do something about it, this models healthy emotional processing which will enable them to adapt the same skills.
- Don’t talk about the incident too often and ask them how they feel too often, because they need to be able to have time to reflect and think in their own time. Children pick up on our emotions more than we would like to think, so if you ask them with an anxious voice all the time if they are ok, they may begin to feel anxious.
- Don’t worry if they sound relaxed and un-empathetic about what has happened. Children can often grasp things in a simplistic way and can feel quite settled once they have processed their questions and don’t understand why us adults can take our time. Or they are choosing to be distracted at the moment but when they are ready will respond with emotion.
- Don’t think it’s insensitive if they ‘play out’ the incident using cars and lorries whilst playing at home. Children process what’s happened by playing, just like we process by chatting or reflecting and so they need to repeat events over and over again. If the ‘story’ doesn’t sound accurate, don’t correct it. They could mix fantasy up with the incident and that could be their way of coping. Children often play in the metaphor too when they are worried so they could have an accident with animals or minions. This is all a positive processing process.
Talking about death
This is such a taboo subject and one that many adults struggle to verbalise. There are many beliefs and traditions that surround our views of death but for children to not feel afraid it seems important to give them some understanding of a loved one being ‘somewhere’. Some people speak about them going to heaven, whilst others speak about them being a star in the sky watching over us. Others speak about them going to a place where there is a party and others say that the loved one is always watching us and smiling at us. Children struggle like us with a sense of finality so its important to give them some concept that helps them to feel some hope and less devastation.
Children often ask if they will die soon or when you will die. It’s good to explain that usually peoples bodies only stop working when they are really really, old and that you expect to be with them until you are really, really old.
Death can be explained using words like, ‘their body stopped working’. They rarely need to know more details than that.
Some helpful activities to do with children who have lost a friend or loved one about the loss of that person
Some children like to write letters, make cards, or make a present to give to the loved one that they have lost. These can be given to the family or left on a grave. Some like to choose a special colour balloon and write a note and send it off into the sky whilst saying ‘bye’. Others like to choose a star that they think is the loved one and look for it often and wave and say anything they need to say. These activities can be essential for some children in order to be able to think, reflect and express emotion and feel a sense of closure.
Let them draw pictures if they want to of the event or the people they have lost and don’t ‘interpret’ or analyze them.
The most helpful adult you could be is one who is:
Calm, authentic about their own feelings, caring, relaxed and not too intense, easy to ask questions and talk about worries and one who doesn’t pretend but does protect.
If your child remains sad, or their behaviour has changed for longer than a few weeks and you are worried about them:
Do seek help. There are people to help you. Health visitors, your GP or counselling organisations like ours- The Trauma Recovery centre. www.trc-uk.org.
The small print:
I have written this post as a mother of four and as a child psychotherapist who works with traumatised children. I lost twin babies 13 years ago and had to help my own 5 and 3 year olds navigate their way through the loss of their brothers lives whilst dealing with others’ grief in their schools and my own grief.
Betsy de Thierry