How can parents and caregivers support children through challenging times?
Parents and caregivers raising young children today have already navigated over two years of community crisis. Since 2020, parents have had to maintain their own mental and physical health throughout the global COVID-19 pandemic, and during that, may have neglected what toll this sort of event can take on their child. Though children can be very naturally resilient, disruptions in school schedules, sick family members, changes in financial circumstances and more can all leave lasting impacts, making the thoughtful guidance and support of parents and caregivers crucial during times of community stress and tension. Here are a few ways to positively parent through traumatic events and emerge on the other side with resilient children:
Listen (and Help Them Find Their Voice)
Much like adults experiencing trauma benefit from having a partner, friend or therapist listen to them talk, children benefit greatly when the adults in their lives make it a point to listen. By offering a listening ear, parents and caregivers demonstrate their love for their child and desire to help them feel safe. Listening also has a secondary benefit since all children process crises differently. By asking them to voice their concerns and knowledge of what is going on, parents can better understand exactly what their child perceives and what they might need from the caregivers around them [MTF3] to feel safe. Don’t hesitate to ask children how they are doing and what they might need. While younger children may have a harder time grasping the words to convey their emotions, parents and caregivers can help them find their voice by sharing how they’re feeling (sad, scared, etc.) or encouraging them to express their feelings through creative play and other interactions.
Take the Emotions as They Come
All children are different, and the way they react and cope to community trauma and stress is going to be unique for each child. Parents and caregivers should keep in mind there are no “correct” motions to expect from their child in response to living through a stressful event. While some children may show very little outward emotion, it’s also perfectly normal for children to exhibit a wide range of emotions. Confusion, sadness, fear, anger, and others are some that may be noticeable to parents. When the emotions do show up, parents should make time to be with their child, listen, help name their feelings, offer simple explanations about what has happened and reinforce their safety.
Restore Their Sense of Safety
One of the most important things parents and caregivers need to communicate to their children[MTF6] in a time of community trauma—be it natural disaster or global pandemic—is that you and your child are safe. If it isn’t clear that danger has passed, parents and caregivers should be upfront and explain that to children in a brief, easy-to-understand way. Honesty is important, but it’s equally as important that parents take care to highlight what they are doing to keep the family safe. It may also provide reassurance to share with your child what other community organizations and the government may be doing to help everyone stay safe, as well.
Get Back to Familiar Routines
Restoring normalcy and routine for a family after living through trauma can take anywhere from weeks to months, but as soon as parents and caregivers are able, they should try to return to the daily schedule their child was most accustomed to. Familiar routines and well-known habits provide a much-needed sense of security and comfort as family members deal with grief, stress, frustration, and other emotions. The younger the child, the more their world is centered on their parents and their home and even small disruptions in routine can make an impact. Offering as much stability as possible, even in the form of something as simple as a regular bath and bedtime routine, can go a long way in helping them process the events of a challenging time.
Limit Exposure to Media and Frightening Images
It’s important for parents and caregivers to be honest with their children about what may be happening in the world, but it’s smart to spare them unnecessary scary details and images. Constant exposure to the news has been shown to negatively affect children, and this is especially true during times of crises. While parents may not be able to limit an older child’s media exposure as much, young children should be protected from frightening scenes as much as possible. Even short clips of broadcast news can leave lasting impacts on a young child’s sense of safety and well-being. If a child is exposed to a media story that causes anxiety, parents should encourage them to look at some of the positives and realistically bolster their sense of optimism about what is happening (like how a doctor is helping a sick person, or a firefighter is putting out the fire).
Children look to the adults caring for them as a model of how to act when it comes to living life day to day. What foods they eat, whether they like to exercise and be outdoors, sleep habits and more are often behaviors picked up from parents and caregivers. This can also be true when it comes to learning coping skills for periods of stress and trauma. Parents and caregivers should model consistent, calm behavior when possible and demonstrate healthy coping behaviors whenever they are anxious. At the end of the day, being a positive role model in the face of unpredictable life events and reminding children they are loved and safe will go a long way in helping everyone bounce back from life’s harder seasons or unforeseen tragedies. For more information on helping children cope with trauma during challenging times, visit www.healthychildren.org.
By ABC Quality Team on September 20, 2022