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
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
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.
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.
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: