Children may become confused, frightened, or depressed in the wake of tragedies, such as natural disasters or violent attacks. The United States has, unfortunately, experienced several crises and disasters over the past several years, which makes it even more important for parents, teachers, and caregivers to know how to help children cope during and after these events.
Kaplan Early Learning Company hopes you never have to use the helpful tips and free resources we have provided, but we also know that preparedness is an important tool in knowing how to react and ensuring children's emotional well-being now and in the future. For a more in-depth look at topics related to crisis and disaster preparedness, feel free to browse through the variety of tools we offer to help you better understand how to help children cope with tragedies.
What You Can Do
To help ensure children's emotional well-being in times of crisis, Kaplan Early Learning Company encourages parents, teachers, and caregivers to BE LOUDER than children's fears and what they may hear or see in the media. Outside influences play a major role in what children think and feel about certain events. A child's previous experiences also play a role in how a child reacts and copes with a tragedy. Children who witness or are victims of abuse, for example, may have a more negative or extreme reaction to an act of violence. Making an effort to BE LOUDER than the other influences that affect a child's life will help children better cope with a crisis or disaster:
Listen - If the children in your care are at the age where they can express their feelings vocally, listen to any concerns or fears they may have about a natural disaster, violent attack, or other tragedy that occurs. Let children know that it is okay for them to express their fear, sadness, or anger with you or another caretaker. Providing a comfortable place for children to express their fears is a great step forward in helping children learn to cope with traumatic events.
Observe - Observing a child's actions and their emotional state is another way to measure the impact an event has had on a child, especially if the child has not yet reached the age where they would be comfortable expressing their concerns vocally. Routine is very important to a child's health, so any changes in a child's behavior, appetite, or sleep patterns could be a sign that they are struggling to cope with a traumatic event.
Understand - Understanding that each child will express his or her emotions differently and will have different coping mechanisms is extremely important in helping children learn how to cope with a tragic event. Children react differently to being afraid, sad, or angry, and they may need help from parents or other adults to learn how to express their feelings appropriately and put them into a healthier perspective. The coping process takes time, so be patient with children as they learn how to positively and effectively deal with traumatic events.
Discuss - Discussing the crisis or disaster with the children in your care is one of the best things you can do to ensure their emotional well-being. It is best for parents to tell children that the event occurred before they hear it from someone else. Teachers should give parents advance notice if the tragedy will be discussed in the classroom. This gives parents a chance to talk with their child first. Being proactive and explaining what happened, even in the simplest of terms, can help children better cope with the crisis or disaster. Cathy Grace and Elizabeth Shores recommend using literature-based activities to help children cope with traumatic events and regain feelings of security in After the Crisis: Using Storybooks to Help Children Cope. If a child is older, be prepared to answer any questions they may have about what happened or is going to happen. A more in-depth conversation is appropriate for older children, especially if they have specific concerns or suggestions to prevent any similar disasters. Encouraging children to do something to help the victims of a tragedy or the rescue responders involved can also help them cope with their feelings about the event.
Empathize - Empathizing with children will also help them feel more comfortable with sharing their feelings about the crisis or disaster. Letting them know that you understand why they would feel that way validates their concerns but also gives you a chance to help children understand what is reality and fantasy. Try to show children that tragedies can also bring people together and use the discussion as an opportunity to teach children the value of working together to rebuild or overcome something traumatic.
Reassure - You should make every effort to reassure children that they are safe. You can also reassure them that other people they know are safe if that statement is true. Remind them that emergency workers, police, firefighters, and other trustworthy adults are helping people and trying to ensure that another crisis or disaster does not happen. Keeping children on a reasonably normal schedule is another great way to reassure them that everything will be okay. Spending extra time reading or playing games with children will also give them a sense of normalcy and reassurance. In The Crisis Manual for Early Childhood Teachers, Karen Miller reminds adults that children may think they caused the traumatic event in some way or caused an adult to become anxious or upset. Try to address your own feelings about the tragedy before you discuss it with the children in your care because they will feel safer if you are calm and controlled when talking about the crisis or disaster.
"A National Tragedy: Helping Children Cope" (NASP)
"Coping With Disaster" (FEMA)
"Coping With Disasters" (NAEYC®)
"Helping Children Cope With Tragedy Related Anxiety"
"Helping Children Deal with Tragic Events in the News"
"School Violence Prevention: Tips for Parents and Educators" (NASP)