It is easy in the middle of chaos to become obsessed with the details and the talk of grown ups. After all there are important decisions to be made and critical choices to discuss. Most of these things are not appropriate for younger ears. It can needlessly worry and overwhelm them. Because we want to protect our kids from the big things, it is easy to forget to make sure that we also prioritize talking to them. When I think of the ongoing crisis happening in Fort McMurray, I think about the parents and how they are trying to help their children cope with the unimaginable.
For what it’s worth, here are some tips I’ve learned through working with families in crisis on how to deal with kids in the middle of a disaster.
1. Talk to your kids.
Remember everything to a child is big in a crisis. This includes things as small as their favorite to toy to as big as their pets. Also the loss of routine, consistency and sense of safety will have big impacts. Here are some tips about talking with kids about a crisis:
- Speak to them directly. Don’t expect kids to pick up information from what is happening around them. They need to hear it from ideally their primary caregivers. They need to have the space and comfort to ask questions with your full attention.
- Be honest and factual. Children and teens need to know they can come to you for the real answers and that you will tell them the truth. If you avoid talking about what happened, make up or gloss over details, your kids will know it. You don’t need to go into graphic detail, only answer what your child is asking or is curious about. The older the child, the more details they may want to know. Try not to speculate about things you don’t know. There is a lot of uncertainty in these situations. It is okay for children to know there is uncertainty as long as they know that you will tell them the truth.
- Watch your language. Younger children are especially concrete. Flowery language and hyperbole can be confusing. Children are not good at abstract thought and usually take things literally. During a crisis they can become confused and that can make them more afraid. Try to be a clear and direct as possible in order to avoid misunderstandings. You know your child – use language that is appropriate for their age and ability to understand.
- Talk about feelings, including your own. If you are upset while telling your kids hard things, that is okay. If you’re angry, it is okay to share that with them. They probably already know. If you respond openly and honestly then they will learn that their emotions are okay too. Too often we try to hide our feelings and then wonder why our kids hide theirs.
- Tell them you love them. It feels good for us to say and for them to hear. So tell them until they are sick of hearing it. During a crisis this is the most important thing for them to know to help them feel safe.
While talking is important, even more important is listening. Here a few tips to help you listen:
- Ask questions. It is a good idea to understand what they have heard and what they understand. You will be better able to dispel misinformation and reassure fear if you keep your ears open and your mouth closed.
- Don’t give them more details than they need. Tragedies like this make grief relevant to them now. Your child will let you know how much they need to know by asking you questions. Respond to their questions and allow them to ask more. When they are ready to move on, they will change the subject.
- Move the conversation forward at their pace. Kids absorb this stuff at different paces. The conversation may be quick and matter of fact or quite detailed. Either is just fine. Your child will tell you when it is time to move on. You need to follow their lead.
3. Provide safety.
Probably the most critical thing your child needs to know is that they are safe now. Focus on the things that help them feel safe. If you were able to rescue their security objects that is great, use them. If you were unable to, then help them search for something that they can use until you can find something permanent. The best security object they have is you.
If your child and family are not able to feel fully secure yet because your housing is temporary or you feel that the danger is still real, be honest but focus on all the protective factors around you. Some of the protective factors are the first responders, the equipment, their family and everything else that is there to keep them safe. Be sure to focus on the efforts taking place to get them some place secure.
4. Give them some control.
Children are often powerless. This is especially true in times of disaster. They don’t get to make the big decisions even though the decisions have a huge impact on their lives. This can be overwhelming and frustrating for anyone. Depending on your child’s age it may not be appropriate to include them on most of the big decisions but it is still important that they feel some sense of power over the world around them. Give your child as much choice as is appropriate for their age and ability to comprehend. Try not so overwhelm them with too many decisions but allow them safe and manageable choices. Choices such as “What should we eat?”, “Where do you want to sleep?” and “What do you want to play with?” can give them some sense of control and purpose.
5. Allow for grief.
Some people will be affected more than others. Some kids/teens will need to talk, some kids/teens won’t. Give them the opportunity to talk, grieve and do whatever they need to do but don’t force them to do anything. One mistake parents make is to over-analyze, over-protect and over-process the events. Teens and children need to go back to their regular routine as soon as they can and are ready. If they are wanting to talk about other things, it is time to move on.
It will take time. Adolescents and children grieve over time, just like the rest of us. You may find that this doesn’t affect them now but it may affect them later. These things come and go over time in unpredictable ways. There is no time frame or end date. They are doing exactly what they need to be doing to grieve right now. Let them handle it however they need to.
6. Let them play.
One of the most therapeutic thing for any age group is play. It allows us to process things we need to process in a safe way. It allows us to distract ourselves by reconnecting with good feelings and it allows us to connect with the people around us in a meaningful way. Not every moment, even in such a brutal disaster, needs to be serious. Laughter and fun are excellent coping strategies.
7. Give yourself a break. Despite the “rules” I have laid out for you, there is no right way to do this. If you approach your child with love and compassion then they will learn from this experience about love and compassion. Trust your gut and your relationship with your child. Let that be the most influential guide.
For my previous post on Surviving Tragedy: For Survivors, click here.
Krista Osborne, MSW, RSW is a Clinical Social Worker who specializes in trauma, grief and loss.