Crises are unpredictable. They can happen anywhere in the world, whether due to natural disasters, personal family issues, or even issues that affect the whole world. During those frightening times, children often get left out of the loop – everything is scary and complicated to them, and a lot of adults may not want to answer their questions.
But children need the support and guidance of their loved ones more than ever during those periods. So don’t shy away from difficult conversations about crises with your kids! Here’s how experts explain these best ways to talk to children during an emergency.
1 – Make Them Feel Safe
A crisis is scary almost by definition, and children can feel overwhelmed or frightened by the implications of it. That’s why you need to help them feel safe. Here’s how you can do that:
Offer Physical Comfort
Help a child feel more comfortable by giving them familiar physical comforts. Let them have their favorite stuffed toys, eat foods they like, bundle up in blankets, and do calming, relaxing things.
Limit News Exposure
According to child psychiatrist Matthew Biel, children can very quickly internalize what they see on the news. The vivid and often sensational video and audio from news reports can be very frightening. You should be the one who gives your child the facts on what’s happening, not a screen.
Be With Them
Spending time with a child can make them feel safe when everything is uncertain. Don’t get annoyed by them being “clingy”!
2 – Encourage Other Means of Expression and Communication
Some children may be unable to express their concerns and feelings to you through words. You can ask them to tell you about things in other ways, such as by:
- Drawing or painting
- Writing stories
- Enacting with toys
These methods will also help them cope and recover, and many children can gain positive benefits from expressing emotions through art.
3 – Be Honest and Open
A lot of adults think that children should be left in the dark about more serious issues, but doing so can often cause them to feel more frightened. Complex situations don’t have to be tough to explain; you just need to give them the simple, general idea of what’s happening in an honest but gentle way.
Lying to children during a crisis doesn’t stop them from finding out about it by themselves, and when they do eventually find out – as all children do! – they will trust you much less the next time something serious happens.
4 – Listen To Them
Children want to be listened to, especially by their parents. But listening to them doesn’t involve paying half your attention to their often incoherent statements as you work. In essence, it involves sitting down, listening carefully to them, and trying to understand what they mean and what it’s like in their shoes, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense.
Listening to a child can help them accept and process difficulties, says Kennet R. Ginsburg, a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and Medical Doctor. In a crisis, it’s even more critical, as it’s a way for parents to collect information on what their child understands and knows. You can listen to children by:
- Asking open-ended questions that give a child lots of room to talk
- Never minimizing even the silliest-sounding worries and emotions
- Not correcting them until they’re done speaking
- Following up shared feelings with reassurance and compassion
- Giving them your full attention when they want to talk to you
5 – Guide Them In Their Thinking As They Process The Information
When you tell a child about a crisis, it can be a lot to take in at once. They may struggle to understand what’s happening, or they may try to dismiss it because it is scary to them. So guide them through their thinking as they process information. You can do this by:
- Asking open-ended questions about how things make them feel or what they heard
- Sharing your thoughts and emotions, so they know adults feel similarly
- Grounding their ideas with information that contradicts more fanciful or extreme reactions
6 – Make Sure They Know How It Will Affect Them
Children can be a little self-centered – often to no fault of their own; their world is so small at their age! This means that most children wonder how a crisis will affect them, and maybe their family, more than they will want to know about the large world-level stakes.
The American Association for Clinical Chemistry’s director of the Grief, Crisis and Disaster Division, Jennifer Cisney Ellers – who is also a crisis response trainer, professional counselor, author, life coach, and speaker – states that this is something that must be addressed very quickly. Make sure your child knows how this may affect them, and don’t lie about those effects.
7 – Be More Understanding Of Worries and Fears
A lot of children experience worsened issues with their worries and fears during or after a crisis. They may express seemingly non-related worries, like being afraid of the dark, more severely. They may also deal with headaches, stomachaches, sleep issues, and other physical symptoms.
Be prepared to deal with these worsened fears, and don’t belittle or scold your child for them. Help them to feel safe by reassuring them with love, affection, and gentle words.
8 – Keep It Age-Appropriate
We talked about the importance of honesty when explaining a crisis to children – but don’t forget about age-appropriateness! Licensed professional counselor Dr. Chinwe Williams states that not all the little bits of information regarding a disaster need to be shared in full graphic detail.
If you have multiple children of different ages, you will likely tell something different to the teenager than you do to the five-year-old. Make sure you’re not worsening the trauma by confusing or frightening your kids.
9 – Be A Role Model
Even children who aren’t far along in their developmental stages can pick up on things from you, says clinical psychologist Abigail Romirowsky. It’s best to assume that, if you’re in a room with your child, they’re listening to and seeing everything and interpreting it in a semi-accurate way.
This means that kids pick up on everything and may emulate what they learn from others as they try to manage the stress of the crisis. So you have to put your best foot forward! Here are some tips for being a role model:
Have Serious Conversations Elsewhere
Go to another room, close the door, and whisper when you need to discuss severe or distressing issues – especially if you feel you may have outbursts of emotion.
Showcase Positive Coping Skills
Children – even those as young as infants – learn through imitation. So if you model positive coping skills, your child is likely to follow suit. Conversely, if you openly display bad coping skills, your child will copy that, too. So when your kids see you upset, show them how you make yourself feel better, and explain why you feel that way. Every moment is a learning experience!
Help Them Do Something Positive
Direct your child’s energy and feelings to something productive. They can write or make cards for loved ones, join you in volunteer or charity work, or be guided to do something nice for someone!
10 – Know Your Child
Know your child well enough to know when something is wrong. You should expect trauma responses that will be out of the ordinary to your child’s usual behavior, and you shouldn’t dismiss it. Every child can react to trauma in a different way, says clinical psychologist Carol Dell’Oliver.
Keep an eye on your child and take note of how they act and behave. If there are habit changes in areas such as:
- General behavior
Keeping tabs on your child’s behavior and monitoring them will help you discover whether or not they are recovering properly.
11 – Make Sure They Know It Isn’t Their Fault
As we mentioned before, children have a pretty small world around them that can make their thoughts relatively self-centered. They may genuinely believe that their actions have led to severe crises, even when it very clearly can’t be linked.
There have been lots of stories about kids who think that their bad grades, tantrums, or naughtiness has caused the death of family members, the divorce of their parents, or even natural disasters and emergencies. So you have to make sure that your child knows they are not to blame at all!
12 – Give Them Brief Time To Process, Then Get Back On Track
After a problematic crisis, kids may need a couple of days to recover. During these times, they may not want to or be able to participate in their usual routine tasks. It’s okay to allow your kids to process this grief, and it can even be good for them, aiding their positive thinking and letting them rest.
But don’t let this rest period drag on for too long! Clinical psychologist and Harvard professor Katie McLaughlin, whose primary research focuses center around trauma, adversity, and stress in children, recommends getting back on track fairly quickly. Routines and predictability can help a child feel safe, and like the world is within control. Examples of conventional methods are:
- Quality family time
- TV and screen time
- Sports and exercise
- Extracurricular activities
13 – Seek Professional Help
As children process trauma, they could develop psychological difficulties that require an expert’s assistance. Common post-traumatic symptoms that children experience are:
- Acting out and throwing tantrums for no apparent reason
- Displaying attention-seeking behavior
- Regressing to childlike actions, they have previously outgrown (like sucking their thumb)
- Withdrawing and becoming reclusive
- Self-destructive behavior
It can sound scary, but seeking aid from a professional is crucial to restoring your child’s positive thinking and mental wellbeing. Board-certified psychiatrist Terri Turner recommends speaking to a pediatrician if symptoms and odd behavior persist for more than a month.
Final Thoughts On Best Ways To Talk To Children During A Crisis
Children may not be able to understand or handle all the details about a crisis, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t receive information that can help them process the events around them. Talk to your child following these 14 ways, and you’ll be able to ease their stress and help them recover and move on with their lives healthily and safely.