Helping Children Feel Safe
written by Carol Castanon and Adrienne Hoskins
* Today’s media is no place for children.
*A special note to those with infants and toddlers: Tell your baby that you are sad. Your baby may not understand your words but they will understand your intention, tone and the rhythm of your voice. You are sharing a feeling in its simplest form. You might say, “Mommy is sad and crying.” A toddler may ask why. You might say, “I heard a sad story.” If the story is one that affects your family and friends, you may add more to the story, including names. If the event is over, you can acknowledge its ending, but the feelings may remain. Be mindful of new events that may trigger a worry that a toddler may not be able to express. Stay aware when what a child expresses verbally or behaviorally is representing a bigger worry. Stay close. Listen. Calmly acknowledge all feelings. Let children know that you are there to keep them safe.
Helping a child when you, the family adult, is feeling worried or scared, depressed or angry, hurt or abandoned, sad or grieving means monitoring your own stress level. It means that you must be aware of your own feelings and needs, and seek outside support when necessary. Taking care of your own needs is critical – including basic needs like sleep, nutrition and exercise.
As parents, we want our children to be happy and safe, protected from the sad and bad. This adds to our challenge, because we might think that silence, or small doses of information, protect our little ones. Of course, we need a balance of information based on the age of the child. Very young children need information that is concrete and directly related to what they know about their world. Who is taking care of me? Where are my primary attachments (Mom, Dad, sibling, Grandma, etc.)? Will they come back? Where is my house and where are my things? Will “it” happen again to me or another family member?
Older children may be able to cognitively understand issues of distance, change, and time. They might want a strategy to right the wrong. Writing letters to a government official or to the newspaper, organizing walkathons or fund-raising money for cures or political action are different ways young people find empowerment through crisis. A preadolescent or adolescent may be able to understand political issues around mental health care, violence and non-violence, etc. They may feel there has been an injustice, and want to make the world fair again. Finding groups that represent their issue in the world is a way to gain control over crisis.
The common threads are the feelings around an event like this. The language we use to communicate feelings is multi-aged. “I am sad. You are sad. We are sad together.” The very first and perhaps most profound message is, “I am here to listen to all your feelings, and answer all your questions as best I can. If I do not have an answer, we can try to find out together.”
“If it is sharable, it is bearable!” Indeed, when we adults can talk about fear or pain, we are moving towards feeling whole, safe, and trusting. It is surprising, the very thing that brings comfort to a child is usually comforting to a grown-up. The following list encompasses strategies we can use to support our families.
REASSURANCE – Stay close to your children and let them know that you are there to take care of them and keep them safe. Children worry that a scary event or the feeling around that event will repeat itself, that there will be another loss or trauma, or that something might happen to them. Point to the strategies you and other adults use to keep the family safe. This may be as simple as wearing seat belts or as complex as having a family disaster plan. Proximity, being physically close, is very important to feeling safe. Calm voices, eye contact, smiles, plenty of hugs and other warm gestures provide a blanket of security. This holds true for all ages. Make sure to take extra time at bedtime to cuddle and reassure them that they are loved and safe.
Make time to talk with your children. Remember that if you are not talking with them about the event, they will still absorb information about it, from other people or from media sources which are all around them. Children are very aware of their parent’s worries, especially during crises. Be mindful of what you say and what your children may overhear you or others talking about.
It is very uncomfortable and often scary for a child to experience an adult shouting, frightened, or crying. This is not to say that adults should always be covert emotionally. However, when adult emotional displays have been intense, bold, and full of drama, you must revisit that experience with children. They need to know the feeling vocabulary that went with the adult behavior, and they need to know that the adults will still take care of them and keep them safe to the very best of their ability. You might say, “I will take care of you even in sad, angry, and crying times.”
LISTEN AND REFLECT – Acknowledgement is important in all relationships. It is deeply comforting to children when caring adults listen to their thoughts, worries, longings, and fears. In crisis, these feelings may take a long time to reveal themselves, or these feelings may be part of the dialogue together for many months ahead. Children are likely to be scared and anxious in the aftermath of a crisis, and they may identify with the victims. Provide a safe space for children to vent their emotions. Verbally reflect back to children what you hear them say.
Make sure you understand their perspective surrounding the event. Often children have misunderstood or are misinformed about the unfolding events. Children often think something they did caused the trauma. Is the space accurate between what they imagine and what is reality? Help them to sort out and understand the details.
Observe your child’s play. Play can be serious work when it is on the heels of a crisis. Play is the method children use to work out their inner world and experiences. Adult observation will be very helpful when a child is pre-verbal or not wanting to talk. Fred Rogers talked about looking for the helpers when there is a crisis. They may be doctors or firefighters, or friends and family. Include this perspective in your dialogue or play with children. You might say, “Firefighters and police officers are helping, and friends are bringing food to families who need it.” When play feels too scary, you might add, “Where are those doctors to help the people? Here come the doctors!”
When dealing with young children, be careful to answer the questions they are asking appropriately, rather than giving them information that they are not really asking for. Too much detail may frighten children who know very little about this incident. Reassure them that this was a tragic situation that was unexpected and an isolated event.
Tell children the truth. Don’t try to pretend the event has not occurred or that it is not serious. Children will be more worried if they think you are too afraid to tell them what is happening. Stick to simple facts. Don’t embellish or speculate about what has happened and what might happen. Don’t dwell on the scale or scope of the tragedy, particularly with young children.
Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate. Early elementary school children need brief, simple information balanced with reassurances that the daily structure of their own lives will stay the same. Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and how this affects their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and differing opinions about the causes of violence and threats to safety in schools and society. They will undoubtedly have concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. They will be interested in doing something to help the victims and affected community.
For all children, encourage them to verbalize their thoughts and feelings. Be a good listener.
RITUALS AND STRUCTURE – In the best of times, children love structure. This is how they know what has happened, what is happening now and what comes next. Even an older child can be confused when routines become unpredictable. If it is not possible to have a clear plan beyond a day, talk about the plan for the day. For the young child, “now” and “next” is enough. The daily routine can be broken down to the morning plan, the afternoon plan, and the evening plan. These plans must include who is where and when they are coming back. This is reassuring for adults as well.
As time allots, create increasingly predictable routine within the day for dinner, chores, reading time, bedtime, etc. but don’t be inflexible. Children may have a hard time falling asleep at night. Tell children what is the same and what is different. Keep children informed as new plans emerge. For the preschool-age child and up, when possible, make or use a calendar. The calendar can have who, what, and where, one day to one week at a time.
Remember important people with rituals. Lighting candles, saying prayers, making books, and making altars are all ways to honor those people who are dear and are in your family’s thoughts. You might say, “I have been thinking about all our friends and family. Let’s light a candle to honor them.”
UNDERSTANDING BEHAVIOR – This is so important. Fear or sadness can look like anger. Regression might feel overwhelming to the care-giving adults. Separation from Mom or Dad may become impossible. A simple visit to the corner store can bring outbursts of crying and screaming. If adults can look beyond the behavior to understand its function — what the child is telling us — then they can be responsive and not reactive. When you are responsive, it tells the child you are keeping them safe even when they are anxious and sad.
It’s vital to accept the child’s full range of emotion. You might witness children in shock, appearing numb to serious events. You might witness denial or anger. Adults need to be clear that it is acceptable to feel anger, sadness, or fear, but it is not okay to be hurtful or inflict pain on others. Adults are there to stop them and keep them safe, always. Adults say exactly those words.
Sometimes adults worry that any regression they see is permanent. Remember it is temporary, but it is an indicator that the child has an unhealed hurt or worry. A child may wonder who will take care of them. You might say, “I have been thinking about all the sad and mad things that have happened. You have reasons to feel worried. I am here to keep you safe.”
RELEASING TENSION AND CALMING ACTIVITIES – If possible be close to your children without distraction. Stanley Greenspan, MD, calls this “Floor Time.” Magda Gerber calls this “Wants Nothing Time.” And Hand in Hand calls this “Stay Listening” and “Play Listening.” Giving your children full attention, without any adult demands, is fulfilling. This full attention time, when possible, should be daily — several short times a day or for one longer period. Twenty to thirty minutes of full attention daily is one of the most important ways you can give of yourself to children. It tells them you are available, and they are valued.
Spend extra time reading or playing quiet games with your children before bed. These activities are calming, foster a sense of security and closeness, and reinforce a sense of normal routine. Spend more time tucking them in. If they ask for it, let them sleep with a light on.
Children need a certain level of activity based on their personal preferences and internal rhythms. The child who is full of big body play may need time at a park or taking walks. Find time to read or quietly draw together. Sand, clay or play-dough can be calming tactile materials.
Some children love making lists of what is the same and what is different. Some children love making books about where and what the family is doing, simply the story of today. All you need is paper and pencil. If this is not available, then telling the story is just as profound. Telling the story helps children and adults put the pieces of their experience together. It allows you to re-visit stressful experiences and for children to know that the experience is bearable.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS ON CRISIS
All people experience crisis or trauma at some time in the life of their family. It may be divorce, illness, or death. Sometimes financial crisis can have a devastating impact on the stability of family. Natural disasters, accidents, and violence may weave their way into family at one time or another. How do families live with the possibility of these events without being driven by fear?
Children feel their parent’s emotional landscape, and most certainly feel fear in adults. When this happens, they feel and know with every cell in their bodies that the world is not safe. They believe that grown-ups cannot keep them safe; no safe haven here. Therefore, it is with utmost respect that children should be told the truth (in simple, age-appropriate ways), and that truth be guided with a thoughtful presence to a child’s emotional development. Primary caregivers are literally and figuratively a child’s – secure base.