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Early Childhood Education and Training Program

Talking with Children about Tragedy

National Association for the Education of Young Children
Helping Children Cope with Disaster

As all of us struggle to deal with the tragic and terrible events of September 11, it's important to recognize how young children may be especially affected by these terrorist acts. Parents and others who care for young children need to provide comfort, reassurance and stability. When children witness violent events, directly or on television, the result is often fear and confusion. Not only can the sudden and unexpected nature of many disasters cause high anxiety and even panic, but young children are also most fearful when they do not understand what is happening around them. Their feelings and reactions should be expected and considered natural. Helping children deal with their reactions to this disaster can be challenging when adults haven't had adequate time to deal with their own reactions, but adults should remember that children are very perceptive, and will quickly recognize the fear and anxiety that adults are experiencing.

The following strategies can help parents and other adults give children the emotional support they need, and show them that you are there to take care of them.

Give reassurance and physical comfort.

Physically holding children brings comfort and a sense of security. Children need extra hugs, smiles and hand-holding. Reassure them that they are safe and that there is someone there to take care of them. Hearing a family member or a teacher say, "I will take care of you," makes children feel safe. Young children have great faith in adults' powers and are responsive to adult reassurances. Model and demonstrate coping skills, because children will imitate adults in reacting to the situation.

Provide structure.

Children need to find consistency and security in their day, especially when the rest of their life is unpredictable. Provide a framework that will be the same from day to day. Emphasize familiar routines at playtime, clean-up, naptime, meals and bedtime. Make sure children are getting appropriate sleep, exercise and nutrition. Play soothing music and model moving slowly and using a quiet voice. Children may have a difficult time accepting routines and other limits, but persevere by being firm and supportive. Make decisions for children when they cannot cope with choice.

Welcome children's talking about the disaster.

Children regain a sense of control by talking about things that bother them, and talking with a supportive adult can help them clarify their feelings. At the same time, children should not be pressured to talk; they may need time to absorb these experiences before discussing them. To help children feel comfortable, parents and other adults can share their own feelings of fear and anxiety, but they should always do so in a calm, reassuring way. For example, you might say, "I was frightened when I saw the explosions, but I knew there were people who were ready to help out." What children need most is to feel that the situation is under control.

Focus on experiences that help children release tension.

  • Give children more time for the relaxing, therapeutic experience of playing with sand, water, clay and playdough.
  • Provide plenty of time and opportunity for children to work out their concerns and feelings through dramatic play. Create props that children can use to pretend they are firefighters, doctors, rescue workers or other helpers. In dramatic play, children can pretend that they are big and strong to gain control over their trauma and to overcome feelings of helplessness.
  • Spend more time in settings that give children opportunities for physical activity and that provide an emotional release.

Model peaceful resolution to conflict.

Peaceful resolution to conflict is one way to give children a stronger sense of power and control, especially critical in the wake of a disaster, which leaves them feeling powerless. Because children who have experienced the emotional trauma and violence of disaster often behave aggressively, they need to see alternatives to using violence to solve problems.

Maintain perspective.

As we learn more about the individuals who are responsible for these tragic events, adults must help children avoid making inappropriate assumptions and using labels about groups of people based on their race, ethnicity, religious background or national origin.

Watch for changes in behavior.

Mental health professionals suggest that, children, like adults, may exhibit symptoms of stress following a disaster. For preschoolers, such symptoms may include thumbsucking, bedwetting, clinging, changes in sleep or eating patterns, and isolation from other children. Older children may be irritable or aggressive and display poor concentration, among other changes in their behavior. Experts also suggest that it is natural for children to display behavioral changes as they emotionally process their anxiety and fear.

NAEYC has several other resources on their Web site that may be helpful for parents and others who work with young children.

Additional helpful sites on the Web include: