My children are clingier since they heard about some of the recent attacks and natural disasters. How can I help them feel safe in a world that I don’t think is safe?
Unfortunately many people have experienced fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, accidents, death of a loved one, violent acts and racial profiling. Also, immigrant families frequently suffer from not knowing what will happen next and if they will be safe living here. If you’re not feeling safe (like so many of us), talk to friends, relatives or a professional. As adults we need to process our fears and be prepared to handle our reactions to events so we can be fully present for the children in our lives. Many of the following suggestions can be of help to adults as well.
Here are suggestions as you consider what your child needs. All children are different, and you know your child better than anyone, so consider these and adapt them based on temperament, age and personality.
Become aware of your emotional state, and respond to a child in a calm and honest manner.
You may be crying or have a worried look on your face. As soon as you can, focus on what your child needs, and let your voice, gestures and body language be reassuring and loving. Our emotions are
Remember that children can hear you when you’re on your phone.
Children want to know that they are safe. They need to see that the adults are in charge and that they’re doing all they can to ensure safety.
Tell them what kinds of things you do to keep them safe. Review routines such as “Stop, Drop and Roll” for a fire. Teach children an emergency plan, including learning their full name, phone number and safe places to go in their home and neighborhood.
Talk to them about the people in their family, school and community who are helpers and who they can count on when things are confusing or scary.
Find something to say that will give comfort, such as “I will do everything I can to protect you.”
If children see people yelling or crying and they feel afraid, acknowledge their feelings, talk about what’s going on and move them away from the situation as soon as possible. You can say that you were upset but that now you’re doing fine. We all have great capacity for resilience.
Always find out what a child already knows. Keep your explanations simple.
You may need to start by correcting misinformation. Give information that will clarify facts and reassure your child.
Communicate information at a child’s level. Be truthful, but don’t overload a child with too much information. Pay attention to what they are asking.
If you can, shield a young child from the events that are happening. Remember though, that young children pick up on adult’s fears and concerns even if they don’t know the details of what is going on.
Listen to what children are telling each other. Even if you have shielded children at home, they are likely to hear things in childcare or school.
Observe your child’s play. Some children will act out what has upset them. Use art, music or writing to express feelings. Read books, take walks and cuddle, but don’t insist on verbal communication if your child doesn’t want to talk.
Turn the TV off!
Young children do not benefit from seeing the dramatic images of a disaster or people who are frightened or angry.
Repeated footage of a disaster can also add to your own imbalance and fear. Get updates and news on your phone or when the kids are asleep.
Over time keep your investigative cap on. Children may be hearing scary things from neighbors, relatives or friends.
Talk with parents and teachers about who is talking about what.
Observe children’s play, listen to what they are saying and provide extra comfort. Acknowledge their feelings and your own. For example, you can tell a child that you were scared when you saw the fire truck at the house but that now you feel safe.
Some children will act out what they saw. For example, a child who saw a fire may build a tower with blocks and then crash it to the ground over and over again. If they are not hurting themselves or others, let them use play to work out their concerns. Set limits and use distraction when you sense your child needs a break from the intensity of their play.
Set up a number scale with children where 10 is when they have felt the happiest and had a great day and 0 is when they have felt the worst ever and had a terrible day.
A scale is a good way to check in to see what kind of day they are having.
Ask what they could do (or you could do) to change their day to a higher number.
People feel a loss of control when there is a disaster or violent event or even a fear of one. Think of things that you and your children can do to increase a sense of agency and ease.
You can draw pictures, write a letter, collect money, send a package, plant flowers, join a march or bring food to someone in need.
Stay connected to loved ones. Keep to your routine as much as possible.
Read stories based on your values. For older children, help them with actions that are fitting to their age and ability.
Stay aware of children who have experienced a traumatic event in the past, such as children who have lost a parent or close relative, a child who has had an operation or children who have suffered from abuse, neglect or other violence.
These children are more susceptible to strong feelings or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
They may withdraw or have more aggressive behavior. Keep in mind that behavior has meaning, and by staying aware you can help them through their difficult feelings.
Deal generously with your own feelings and needs. If you are overwhelmed by your reactions, find another adult to talk to or seek counseling. Take time to renew your energy and do your best to get enough sleep. Your children are watching you to find out if they are safe and loved. Ψ
Rona Renner, RN (“Nurse Rona”),
is a nurse, a parent educator and a temperament specialist. You can learn more about her at www.nurserona.com